“30 meters, 20 meters, 17 meters, standing by for touchdown… Touchdown confirmed!” As the controller repeated the statement, the entire control room erupted into cheers and her voice got lost amid the roaring celebrations. This was the scene at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on 26 November 2018, when the InSight rover landed on Mars.
The JPL is no stranger to these kinds of monumental moments. Over the decades, it has seen some historic landings on the extraterrestrial bodies and has successfully launched various telescopes and rovers into space. It is one of the leading centers for research, atmospheric studies, and robotic exploration of the solar system with an established facility and skilled engineers and researchers. The different facilities at the institute are available for the faculty as well as the students. Collaboration with other agencies has enabled the attainment of valuable data on galaxies as well as the Earth.
Established at the Caltech campus in California, USA, this center has been a prime innovator and a partner with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In the 1930s, a Professor at the Caltech Guggenheim Aeronautical Lab, authorized an offsite location to be used by his students for conducting their experiments, after they had a mishap on campus. In 1936, five of the graduates and two rocket fanatics launched several rockets from this site which would later become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The US military took notice of their successful experiments and commissioned them to create products to be used in the Army. After a while, the researchers agreed to extend the work to nonmilitary missions and successfully developed Explorer 1, the first successful US satellite, which was launched into orbit on 1 Jan 1958. This led to the transfer of JPL to the civilian administration and it was taken in charge by NASA.
Over the years, JPL has carried out major missions for space explorations. These include the Curiosity rover, the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, InSight, Spitzer Space Telescope, Mariner 10, etc. Its Mariner 2 spacecraft was the first probe to orbit and observe the planet Venus closely. It led the Mars Pathfinder mission to Mars, Voyager Spacecraft, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, Spirit and Opportunity rover to the red planet, Dawn Spacecraft, and surely, the manned Apollo missions to the moon couldn’t be possible without the assistance of JPL.
The road to success
JPL’s shot to its success didn’t happen quickly. It took years and years of research, testing and experiments to create missions that would help unravel the mysteries of the universe. Looking into the working of the lab, it is apparent that certain unique features helped to achieve its monumental success.
One such thing is the creation of this lab in a university. Space programs and institutes of other countries have failed as they made their labs exclusive to specific people only. JPL, on the other hand, has not only access to great scientists and engineers, but it also invites the talented students and the bright minds of the Caltech Institute and elsewhere to join. They have allowed public access to the labs through tours etc. and such an open environment has enabled many things; the biggest of it: Inspiration. Students and the general public having complete access to the workings of the lab, see for themselves the mind-blowing feats it has achieved and how the extraterrestrial data can unlock the true nature of our planet and the universe. Such an experience leads to the development of questions and raises curiosity. And when curiosity is attained, passion for the answer is ignited by itself leading to the creation of spectacular works. This work of harmony was beautifully acknowledged by the Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum who said:
“The spirit and ambition of JPL helps define the character of Caltech. Together, we unlock the secrets of the universe, trace the changes on our planet, capture the imagination of our fellow citizens, and inspire the next generation of scholars. We are able to think big because the separation between our campuses remains small.”
Like others, JPL was under the military administration in the beginning, but the real success came when it first started to work under the civilian body and helped satisfy the inquisitive appetite in human nature. It allowed everyone to work and collaborate and reach to the levels of brilliance no one else could due to their restrictions. This freedom helped create such a name for JPL that almost every space enthusiast in the world knows about it.
Opportunities for curious minds
Research and development are fired up when chances are given to the young curious minds. At JPL, internships are the amazing opportunities that allow students to work with scientists and engineers who have helped make it a leading center of research. But the internships are available for the U.S. citizens only which sets a limitation on the dreams of the aspiring individuals across the globe. As NASA is an agency funded through the tax of the US public, it can’t help in grooming non-U.S. citizens, mostly due to security issues. We can’t blame them in this regard as their reasons are right, so we can instead establish models inspired by NASA across nations where there is a dire need of advanced scientific research. It is not an easy task, and, in most countries, such agencies work entirely under the military command. In the underdeveloped and perilous states, most budgets are spent on the military for strengthening the defense system. Looking at the example of JPL, it can be concluded that although defense is extremely critical, nurturing the bright minds towards achieving an even bigger goal is also important.
Such freedom and mentorship can lead to a sustainable community and state. JPL working alongside NASA have given us the picture formed as a result of collaborative work and efforts and developing such environments are key to answering the questions of our existence and what is present out there in the universe.
Until others follow this pursuit, JPL continues to roar in the world of space exploration, discovering amazing phenomenon in the universe, giving us those celebratory videos from the mission control rooms, landing on Mars and beyond, and fostering capable individuals to do the same.
Maham Maqsood is the Managing Editor at Scientia Pakistan. She is a senior at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad studying Biochemistry. An avid reader and a freelance writer, Maham has worked for several organizations including Globalizon and MIT Technology Review Pakistan.