'Rocket Boys' legacy lives at NASA
By Amanda Jermyn

Nestled at the foot of the beautiful San Gabriel Mountains in Pasadena, California is the sprawling complex that is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, known as JPL. It all began, perhaps inspired by Robert Goddard’s 1926 launch of the first liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts, when a group of students from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and a couple of their friends began testing rockets they’d built from cheap engine parts. After some unsuccessful attempts which included setting fire to their oxygen line, the” Rocket Boys,” as they were known, made their first successful launch on November 15th, 1936. As the rocket experiments were deemed too dangerous for Caltech’s campus, they were moved to JPL’s current site where the Rocket Boys’ mentor, Caltech professor Theodore von Karman, became its first director. From these humble beginnings JPL which has moved on to the construction and operation of cutting edge tools to explore everything from nearby planets to deep space.

During and after World War II missiles were developed at JPL in a program called Jet Assisted Take-Off (JATO). Then in October 1957 the Soviets upstaged the US by launching Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Though JPL already had designs and prototypes for developing a satellite, President Eisenhower, for political reasons, gave the contract to the Navy whose Vanguard project subsequently proved an embarrassing failure. JPL and the US Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency then jointly took over, and in January, 1958 the first US satellite, Explorer 1 was successfully launched. It was the first satellite in the world with a scientific payload. The Space Race with the Soviet Union was on!

The Jet Propulsion Lab is the only NASA center founded by a university - Caltech. It is university operated but federally owned and funded, receiving $1.8 billion annually from the NASA budget. Set on 177 acres, it has about 6,000 employees, plus many Caltech graduate and undergraduate student interns. Its primary function today is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft. It also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions and is responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network, an international array of antennas and communications facilities that support interplanetary space missions. Major contributions have been made by JPL to the building of important telescopes, including those involved in the hunt for rocky earth-sized exoplanets. The Spitzer Telescope, an infrared space observatory, was built in collaboration with Harvard University, and JPL was responsible for the camera sent into space to save the Hubble Telescope.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s many spacecraft and satellites explore the solar system and deep space. Launched in 1989, the Galileo spacecraft was sent to explore Jupiter and its moons, operating until 2003 when it was intentionally crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere. Cassini, a joint venture with the European Space Agency, was sent to explore Saturn and its moons, arriving in 2004. Some spacecraft are repurposed, such as Deep Impact: After exploring comet Tempel 1 it went on to explore another comet, Hartley 2. In 2004, the twin Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, built by JPL, successfully landed on Mars. Though Spirit is no longer operating Opportunity is still sending back impressive data. The burning question for future missions is if there is or was life on Mars and elsewhere in the solar system. With this in mind, a new Rover, Curiosity, has been built and will be launched in November this year to land on Mars in 2012. Other launches planned this year hope to explore the gravity of the moon and to provide a detailed map of Jupiter. And to think that it all began with a bunch of curious students testing rockets they’d built from cheap engine parts…

Join the Springfield STARS club for a talk by Chris Lyons on JPL’s Dawn Mission. Dawn is a NASA robotic spacecraft launched in September, 2007 to explore the asteroid belt and its two most massive objects, the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. These objects are thought to be remnants of the formation of our solar system and should provide insights into how the early solar system evolved to form the planetary systems we have today. This spacecraft will be the first to enter into orbit and study two different bodies on the same mission, and is powered by a revolutionary ion propulsion drive mechanism. Chris Lyons has worked as an automation engineer, developing robotic machines and control systems. He teaches astronomy programs to students throughout Western Massachusetts. He runs the StarLab portable planetarium at the Springfield Science Museum as well as astronomy, science and robotic training classes for the Springfield Museum School. His talk on the Dawn Mission will be on Tuesday, May 24th at 7:30pm at the Springfield Science Museum. Refreshments will be served, and the public is welcome free of charge.