You may have a cool job. You may even have a cool title—say, something along the lines of "dessert czar." But I submit that no one has a more rapturous job title than Bill Weber, who is the head of something called the Interplanetary Network Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Compared to such a title, "Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff" sounds like a typing monkey.
Officially, Weber is the director of the Directorate—well, it is a government job, after all—and while one hopes his duties would include wearing epaulets and dispatching galactic defense forces, he is actually the administrator in charge of the Deep Space Network, the big radio that NASA uses to talk to spacecraft. The Deep Space Network managed communications for about three dozen space flights last year—for example, the Deep Impact mission that made fireworks of the speeding comet Tempel 1 on the Fourth of July.
FOR THE RECORD:
JPL —In the Feb. 5 issue of West magazine, the 800 Words column identified the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as being in Pasadena. Although the JPL's mailing address is Pasadena, as reflected on its website, it is within the boundaries of La Canada Flintridge, near the Pasadena city line.
The Deep Space Network is the thing that makes JPL go. "We're best known for our planetary exploration," says Weber. "That's what put us on the map of the universe."
Not just on the map. At its center.
And why not? In its dizzy and exquisite extremity, California is just like America, only more so. It's no trick to argue that California—the fifth largest economy in the world—is the cultural, industrial and entrepreneurial center of the United States. We've got Google. We've got Apple. We've got Hollywood. Did I mention Google?
But we've also got JPL, the NASA-Caltech campus tucked into an alluvial fan of the San Gabriel Mountains, an operation that enjoys a little-appreciated centrality of its own. Going on 70 years old and looking like no more than a well-heeled community college, JPL makes many of the spindly, gold-foiled, dish-mouthed machines that reconnoiter our solar system. Mariner, Voyager, Galileo, Mars Exploration Rovers. On Jan. 15, for example, JPL's Stardust machine landed in the Utah desert, bringing back particles collected from the tail of comet Wild 2, which required a nifty bit of space driving by any reckoning.
Pasadena, the center of the known universe—how's that for a civic motto? Even missions that don't use JPL-built machines, like the New Horizons probe launched to Pluto a few weeks ago, run their communications through JPL's big radio.
Every day, 24/7, scientists and engineers man the Space Flight Operations Facility in Building 230, keeping tabs on NASA's squadron of curious interplanetary contraptions. All roads into deep space, into Creation itself, go through that racquetball court-sized room, with its lazy crescents of LCD monitors and overhead display screens.
A Pasadena-centric cosmos? I grant that the conceit needs some fleshing out. In point of fact, there is no 3-D geometric center of the universe, says Charles Beichman, an astrophysicist and executive director of JPL/Caltech's Michelson Science Center. The universe is receding from us in all directions at the same speed; sky surveys reveal that the distribution of mass and energy is virtually the same everywhere we look. The center, therefore, is wherever we plant the flag.
I say Pasadena. There's a marble column in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, called the Milion, from which all distances of the Byzantine Empire were measured. Medieval cartographers made Jerusalem the center of their maps of the known world. From the known to the unknown. It's all relative.
I explain my theory to Dr. Beichman. He looks at me kind of funny.
"You could say that the center of the universe is California," he agrees, "but you might get an argument about Pasadena."
He notes that the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is based in Mountain View, near San Francisco. "California argues for pride of place, but Northern California leads in listening, while Southern California leads in reaching out."
Beichman's bailiwick is planet-finding. In the next few years, NASA hopes to launch a series of space-based observatories to look for new worlds around stars, searching particularly for planets that are Earth-like. "What you really want is to find more beachfront property," Beichman says over lunch at JPL's cafeteria.
It's a pleasant thought that there might be other Californias out there somewhere, other great gardens that we would tend more carefully, with experience as our guide. We certainly have made a hash of things through the years. And yet no other place has the life force, the ambition, the idealism, the promise.
California may not actually be the center of the universe, but it's close enough for government work.