JPL the new Disneyland?

If you’re looking for a day (or half day) out today in the greater Los Angeles area, let me suggest a trip up to the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL). (Details here.) Their open house (held today and yesterday) is rather fun…. you get to learn about some of the grand space missions of yesteryear (like the 1977 Voyager missions… both craft are still actively sending data from beyond the solar system now), or of the moment (like Cassini-Huygens, for example sending wonderful pictures of Saturn and Titan back for us to learn from and marvel at – see e.g. here), or to come soon (like WISE (an infra-red telescope which will help broaden and deepen our understanding of planetary systems, galaxies, and the universe at large), or Dawn (a mission to go and orbit and study two large asteroids).

JPL Open House

You can learn lots of things about the science these missions are teaching us about not only far away worlds, but about our own world. There are also missions which are studying earth directly (making observations about our atmosphere, oceans, and so forth), so even if you don’t care about space, there’s something for you.

JPL Open House

JPL Open HouseYou can visit special exhibits for each of the missions, talk to scientists and engineers, and even visit the large warehouses where the spacecraft are made, and where they are assembled. There are the control rooms to visit, JPL Open House a dome with giant robots (I’ve no idea about that one), an extra special exhibit about Mars exploration, and lots of stations with all sorts of entertainment for kids! They’ve done a great job providing a lot of material for everyone to take away, including packets of information for teachers to use in their classes too!

JPL Open HouseJPL Open HouseI was particularly impressed with how many people were there. There was a huge amount of enthusiasm everywhere and droves of people. I thought I was in a sort of alternative Disneyland for a while there, with long lines here and there to go and see rooms full of, well… lathes, drills, and etching equipment, in some cases. Great! (This was no ordinary etching equipment… and they’d set one giant computer-controlled machine to etch out a nice welcome sign, as you can see below.)… and of course, to see models of real spacecraft, robots, and even more excitingly (he says, eyes twinkling) real scientists and engineers!

JPL Open House   JPL Open House

JPL Open HouseJPL Open HouseFor a while, I was worried that it was essentially just tech-minded parents who brought their children or partners/friends along – and yes, I do thing that there was a lot of that, as I could tell by random listening to somebody breathlessly explaining things to the people they were with in a little more depth than is normal for a random person off the street (even for the Pasadena region and surrounds). I would have liked to have seen/heard from a broader cross section… maybe some people coming to this out of curiosity and then coming away feeling that they had fun and learned a lot, perhaps to their surprise. I imagine that this occurred too, but given that this is not hugely advertised around the city (as far as I could see), I wondered who was missing out on this…. As I left the compound to head to the car park (I stayed only for two hours… I did not see everything, but got a good sense of everything… and besides, I had a hot date – see below) I pondered all this… and then I heard a voice calling out to me:

“Dr. … It’s Dr….. Dr… you spoke to us in the church… about science….”


“Yes! Dr. Johnson! You came and spoke to us at the Overcomers Church of Christ about science. Last year!”

Wow. I’ve never been recognized like that before. Indeed, it was a woman and her young (maybe five year old?) daughter from the church that day in April 2006 when I went along to give a…. sermon (kind of) about science and science careers…. in a church in South Central LA. (Read more about that here, if you like; I think the little girl in one of the pictures there is the little girl of today.) I remembered the woman too, and she reminded me of her name: Camille, a journalist. She’d heard about the open house, and decided to bring her daughter along. She’s not a scientist or technician bringing her daughter to JPL. She’s a general member of the greater Los Angeles community, and she heard about it and decided to come. It’s likely that there were very many other cases like this that I don’t know about. (Maybe even school trips from schools that were from further away that the local nieghbourhood?) Anyway, there you go cvj, perhaps you should stop worrying so much.

JPL Open House

Angeles National ForestAnyway, my hot date? There are two other major reasons to head up to JPL on a weekend day. One is the fantastic swoop of a drive up the 2 highway from where it connects to the 5 up to where you get off for the 210. Breathtaking and exhilarating, every time. The other? The mountains, which were beckoning saucily to me the whole time I was wandering around JPL’s grounds. At some point there came a point when I’d seen enough to know they’d done a good job of the open day…. It was time to head to into the Angeles National Forest, change into shorts and boots, and lose myself in the semi-wilderness for the rest of the afternoon. A date with the (indeed hot) outdoors…

Angeles National Forest


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15 Responses to JPL the new Disneyland?

  1. spyder says:

    The Great Smoky Mountains, or just another smoggy day in LA??? At least you could see down the canyon and across the ridge; there is something to be said for that. Wouldn’t it be great if there were more alternative Disneylands like this? More opportunities for people to actively interact with the scientific and engineering achievements of humankind?

    For years i used to encourage public school teachers, who lived and worked near universities, to develop connections with former students who attend(ed) those universities. Then they could arrange tours and open houses for their students to experience those creative intellectual environments (particularly the arts and sciences) guided by university students who had matriculated out of the same environments. University and college campuses can be our alternative Disneylands; perhaps they could even charge admission and raise money to defer tuition hikes??? (cough cough)

  2. Clifford says:

    That’s water vapour. And rather beautiful too… The smog thing is too exaggerated in people’s minds these days, compared to what it is more likely to be on a give day.

    Yes.. more alternative Disneylands! That is indeed my point!



  3. Amara says:

    Cool.. I see Dawn is advertised too. What a complicated road that was, after, not one, but _two_ cancelations :-/ It wil be hard to remove Dawn from the launch pad now.

    To go along with your JPL and Voyager words, I offer you this story of a A Human’s First Snapshots of Another World. Hope you had a great hike! Enjoy!

  4. Amara says:

    P.S. The engineers at Kennedy are doing a good job of documenting the preparation of Dawn for launch. Every time I check at their archive, I see new pictures.

  5. Jeff says:

    Sorry I missed you here in my neck of the woods Clifford! Argh. I do see that you’ve got at least one pic of the patio near my office where I’m often sitting, with a coffee, thinking hard about satellites to measure dark energy or galactic emissions or some such stuff.

    And of course a Switzers hike is mandatory, and #2 on my list of frequent trips (the Arroyo Seco itself, where you’d get too if you hike all the way down from Switzers, is #1 just because it’s literally outside the back yard.) We went up to Sturtevant falls today in Big Santa Anita canyon today for a wonderful hike to the falls. Gorgeous weekend to be out.

    Till next time,

  6. mollishka says:

    Definitely surprisingly good hiking near JPL. (Well, surprising for me, since I didn’t realize that “nature” and “near LA” could be used in the same sentence without a negative.)

    Too bad JPL doesn’t have any of those fun machines to make you feel weightless, disoriented, or like you’re in a centrifuge. Then it’d be like Disneyland for Nerds, complete with rides!

  7. Ned Wright says:


    When did you visit the WISE display? I thought I saw you walk by while I was there 1-3 PM on Saturday but you didn’t stop then. I see you got a “WISE In a Box”.

    It seemed like a bigger crowd this year than last. The Girl Scouts were out in force as usual, and very enthusiastic.

  8. Clifford says:

    “Well, surprising for me, since I didn’t realize that “nature” and “near LA” could be used in the same sentence without a negative.”

    Wow. Not only is there hiking and “nature” near LA, you can hike in Nature right in the city. You should try it some time.


  9. spyder says:

    The smog thing is too exaggerated in people’s minds these days,

    Well as a native angelino i have some experience with smog (and what we at the beach used to call “pog”–polluted fog) and i find it difficult to discern water vapor as a solo constituent part of the haze ( You rightly suggested though that i wasn’t there that day to be an accurate judge, and may be exaggerating the possibility that all that watervapor is free from the particulates that comprise the three most dangerous chemicals. And as i pointed out, you could see down the canyon and across to the other ridge; on a real smoggy day, you would hardly be able to see the trees in the background of the Dawn display board image.

    However just the other day here in the Northwest, i was jogging along and realized i was tasting that particularly odious and most detectable flavor. Indeed the local haze was not water vapor, as it often is, but wonderful pure smog. I know that experience, that taste, the cough flavor, from years of trying to function in LA in the smog.

  10. Clifford says:

    While LA county has a long way to go in improving its air quality (yes, it is still one of the worst metropolitan areas), I have to say that you sound very much like the people I’ve heard before on this subject who lived in LA a while back (native angelenos and non-natives alike)… their memories of the truly terrible smog days that are behind us are polluting their perception of the reality of what it is like now, and they reach for the (with all due respect) frankly tiresome cliché that there’s all this smog to be found all year around. (Then the myth gets perpetuated, like so many otherrs….)

    We are at that time of year that there is a huge bank of moisture that accumulates overnight, making it overcast (and nicely moist for the benefit of lots of native plants) for a while, and then burns off by the afternoon… this should be well-known to you. Sometimes it lingers well into the afternoon, and never burns off entirely. There are remnants of it in the lower parts of the mountains, such as the direction I am looking in in the photograph. It has nothing to do with smog. (You get the same phenomenon all along the coast along here.. I remember it from my Santa Barbara days, for example). Later in the year -certainly not May- the same body of air can get tinged with particulates, yes… and then it looks somewhat brown, as this does not. Then there is a serious smog component.

    Please try to look at this photograph as what it is… a rather beautiful scene from Nature that would look much the same as it would have 1000s of years ago before we made any significant impact on the air. It this were a picture taken in foggy hills in Scotland or New Zealand, I bet you would not have reached for the smog cliché.



  11. Quasar9 says:

    Could be, would be, should bee!

  12. mollishka says:

    You should try it some time.

    I have! I guess I wasn’t clear… on the east coast we just hear about how smoggy LA is, so my first time in the area, I was surprised that there was both smog and nature 😉 But the air is quite nice in the mountains up north of Pasadena.

  13. Clifford says:

    Hi Ned! (Comment #7 which had been lost in the spam purgatory)

    I can’t believe I missed you at the WISE display! I’m very sorry. I think I may have been distracted or something. Actually I sort of think I remember doing a double take at someone (probably you) while I was in line but then second guessing myself and thinking that maybe they were not familiar after all… then before I could re-check, they’d started answering some questions of a couple of people and I thought I would not disturb them…

    I’m very sorry. I think you looked right at me too. I hope you don’t think I was being rude… I was merely distracted.

    Yes, I thought the WISE-in-a-box handout was a good idea. Unfortunately, I lost mine soon after I took that snap of it….



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