JPL gives public a rare behind-the-scenes peak

Visitors to Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Space Flight Operations Facility were given one rule as they filed inside Saturday morning: Say ‘wow.'

The hub that manages missions and flights is usually closed to the public; but many got a rare, close-up look at the national historic landmark during the NASA center's open house, which will continue again Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“That was fantastic,” said Kathy Ross. “You could see everything that they show on TV and all the stuff they don't.”

Ross, from Studio City, was one of an estimated 17,700 visitors to tour JPL. She was on hand with her 8-year-old son, David. His response?

“I loved it,” he said, adding that it made him want to be a scientist one day.

Ross, one of many parents at the open house, said it was a great learning experience for kids. “They get to see why they learn math and why they learn science and what you can do with it when you grow up,” she said.

The mission control center was dark and quiet, scattered with only a handful of workers Saturday. But in 57 days, it will be bustling with more than 50 engineers as they prepare to land the rover Curiosity on Mars on Aug. 5.

It was one of many sites on Saturday tied to the Mars mission. In a neighboring building, a film explained how Curiosity will land, and a full-scale model of the rover was displayed in the lobby.

In another area, children flopped onto their bellies and pretended to be rocks in front of an image of Mars as a small, eight-wheeled rover rolled over their backs.

Its robotic successors were slowly circling under a nearby tent. The largest one, Athlete, was being regarded as though it were a zoo animal. People pointed and gathered around the roped-off edges to gaze at it.

With seven limbs and coming in at nearly 7 feet tall, the prototype was designed as a lunar cargo carrier.

“If you were going to have a sustained presence on the moon, you would need a utility vehicle like this,” said Julie Townsend, a JPL robotics engineer.

JPL also had something for Earthlings who wanted to find out more about their own planet — or other possible habitable planets in the universe.

Light boxes showed satellite 3-D images of the Los Angeles area over a period of time. In one image, smoke from the 2009 Station fire, which devastated the Angeles National Forest, was visible.

For those interested in things a bit farther away from home, scientists were on hand to explain the Kepler mission, which aims to discover Earth-sized planets that could sustain life.

“I'm really looking forward to someday being able to put together the mission to find out that there's a planet that has carbon dioxide and water and all those things together,” said Charley Noecker, an optical engineer for JPL. “That's got to mean there's some kind of life out there.”

David Cwik, a 39-year-old Los Angeles resident, was in awe during his first visit to the JPL campus.

“Seeing things that could be on other planets right in front of you really makes it more real,” he said.

“It doesn't seem so impossible."

-- Tiffany Kelly, Times Community News

Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly

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