On February 9, 2016, NASA held a “State of NASA” event, opening the doors of its ten field centers to the media, including many from its growing base of social media followers. Along with a guided special-access tour — organized by NASA Social — of their respective facilities, media members at each center were able to watch a NASA Television simulcast of NASA administrator Charles Bolden delivering the official address on the state of the agency, wherein he dove into NASA's major accomplishments, missions, and challenges of the day. And according to Bolden, the state of NASA is strong. Such a sentiment is to be expected at an address like this, but that doesn't mean it rings any less true. I was fortunate enough to visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena on that day and represent SciComm Hub — the UCLA-based community of graduate students and young scientists focused on science communication, the same community that laid the foundations for Signal to Noise — and it seemed to me that things at NASA were indeed real good, and maybe even awesome.
Bolden’s address took place at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, which, after nearly a century of operation, is the oldest of NASA’s facilities. The stage was set in the research hangar, one of Langley's oldest buildings, where Gemini and Apollo astronauts once practiced docking. That setting mixed past and future, as Bolden talked about NASA’s upcoming missions and visions: New Horizons entering the Kuiper Belt, Juno visiting Jupiter and one of its moons Europa, satellites looking back at our own planet to understand its climate, market competition in the space industry providing a boost to technology advancement and jobs across the country, educational upticks in STEM fields, and, perhaps bigger than anything, Mars. NASA hopes to send astronauts to the red planet in the 2030s. Bolden stressed that the journey to Mars would benefit all Americans and that America was, and should be, invested and excited in the Martian adventure.
I got a chance to see a bit of that adventure for myself during the guided tour of JPL. Included was a visit to the spacecraft assembly facility, a clean room where we had to wear smocks and booties and take a high-powered air shower to enter. In the facility, they showed us a replica of one of the wings on Juno as well as the heat shield for the Mars 2020 rover. The 2020 rover won't send people to Mars (we're not there yet), but as a faster and smarter version of the Curiosity rover, it will be able to better collect samples of the Martian surface and eventually aid in returning those samples back to Earth. This makes the 2020 mission a crucial step towards humans visiting Mars one day, because, just as we need to be able to launch a sample-carrying return vehicle off of Mars, we will also need to be able to launch our astronauts off of Mars and back to Earth as well!
We also walked through JPL’s mission control room where they operate all the various spacecraft. I got a glimpse of the surface of the largest object in the asteroid belt, Ceres, as seen from NASA’s spacecraft Dawn in real time. And NASA let us play with data on global temperature, sea level, and more collected by their own satellites in near-Earth orbit, monitoring our planet’s weather and shifting climate.
The innovation and excitement behind the work at JPL is inspiring and infectious. Going there brings it into focus. One of the over-arching missions of NASA is to push the boundaries of exploration, to understand the spaces we live in — that vision becomes tangible when you actually go to the field center, and most of all when you talk to the people doing the work. It's hard not to be excited about the future. So to try to share the excitement with others, I live-tweeted my experience from the SciComm Hub Twitter account — check out the Storify below and see what it’s like behind the scenes of space exploration!
-Sean Faulk (@sean_faulk20)
Signal to Noise Staff Writer
PhD Candidate, Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences