One of the craziest twists of PAX Prime this year was finding myself in the green room of the Chainsawsuit live show with Bobak Ferdowsi (aka NASA Mohawk Guy). I wasn’t sure if he would be interested in talking to some random civilian about space stuff, but within a few minutes we had struck up a conversation about the Curiosity rover and her new autonomous navigation software.
Bobak and I emailed a bit when we got back; I sent him some of the spec work I’ve done for NASA over the years, and he invited me to visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory when I was in town for IndieCade.
Sure enough, I passed NASA’s security clearance, and Bobak came in on his day off to show me around. JPL is a place that’s fascinated me since I was very young, and the visit felt like kind of a pilgrimage. I got to see ATHLETE, my favorite space robot, and walk through the Mars Yard, JPL’s simulated martian terrain. I saw Voyager’s golden record and took a photo with Bobak in the EDL mission control room from the Seven Minutes of Terror video.
In some senses JPL to was surprisingly, disappointingly normal; JPL employees are not all assembled in mission control like in Apollo 11, wiping sweat from their brows and issuing orders, they do not write with space pens, and they do not eat astronaut food. But every time I began to see JPL as an ordinary office, we’d walk by something extraordinary like a NASA police SUV or U.S. Government trash cans.
The most extraordinary thing I saw was in the Dark Room control center, where Bobak walked us through the data from the Deep Space Network coming through on the big monitors. While we were there, we watched a 45,000 sq ft antenna in Madrid receive a transmission from the Voyager 1 probe, the only object that our species has ever managed to send beyond our own solar system. Ten hours earlier, about 9.5 billion miles out from our sun, Voyager pointed it’s tiny 23-watt transmitter back at Earth and sent some of the first instrument data from beyond our solar system, and there it was, coming in live, packet by packet.
On the way home, I remembered this conversation Brandon Boyer had with Voyager’s Twitter account. He asked, “Do you feel lonely? Do get scared? Does Twitter help?” Voyager responded, “I’m usually too busy to be lonely, but when I lose contact, I have a ‘panic’ routine to refind Earth. Someday this will fail, on your part.”
In the world of design, gaming, and tech, we strive for things like profitability, independence, convenience, or fun. Those things are important to be sure, but sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that we are still capable of making instruments of discovery that will outlast our species.