The Sojourner microrover during assembly at JPL on January 12, 1996. The two engineers are holding one of the sets of wheels that will soon be crunching along in the martian soil. The rectangular box is also part of the rover. Photo by Sheri Klug. Click on above to see full image.
by Sheri Klug, Canyon Owyhee School Service Agency, Marsing Middle School, Marsing, Idaho
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to visit a very extraordinary place. This place held significant memories for me while I was growing up... the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Having grown up in the Southern California desert, I remember that a broadcast by JPL meant that we were about to see incredible pictures from incredible places! I can still remember seeing the Viking lander pictures beam across the television set when I was younger. It was one of the most remarkable and memorable moments of my life. Now, as an adult educator, I feel as if I have finally realized a dream come true.
I recently spent a very special day touring the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is located in Pasadena, California (northeast of Los Angeles). There, I saw past history along with future history in the making. Jim Rice from Arizona State University and myself were invited by Dr. Matt Golombek of the Mars Pathfinder Project to tour the site. Highlights included seeing the components of Sojourner, the microrover being sent to the martian surface on the Mars Pathfinder mission (launching this December); the flight hardware for the Mars Pathfinder cruiser and lander; the Cassini spacecraft, which is being sent to Saturn in 1997; a full-scale model of the Galileo, which has just recently reached Jupiter; models of future missions being considered, such as the "Pluto Express;" not to mention historic missions like the Venus Magellan project.
We spent time touring the future mission control area of the Mars Pathfinder project, renewing old friendships with many of the project scientists and engineers that we met in the Channeled Scabland of Washington in September 1995, when I was one of the 13 educators who participated in the Mars Pathfinder field work there. We also visited JPL's own "Mars garden," an artificial martian surface where they test rovers, like Sojourner, that may one day go to the Red Planet.
JPL doesn't look much like a giant laboratory from the outside. It more closely resembles a college campus. We walked from building to building along well-kept sidewalks and tree covered lanes (it was 80 degrees outside in January!). We toured areas of spacecraft assembly called "clean rooms." These rooms are sealed to keep dirt and dust out. The employees that work in this environment wear special garb: masks, slippers, hats, and ground wires so as to not accidently shock any of the highly sensitive equipment. Some of the rooms we viewed were very large and tall. These are called "high bay clean rooms." Here, different components of many spacecraft can be assembled and tested all at once.
One of the great moments of the tour was when Howard Eisen, head project engineer for the Mars Pathfinder minirover, brought to the window of the clean room, the actual Sojourner microrover (see photo, above). As Jim and I stared at the table two feet away, Howard carefully unwrapped one of the wheels. We could see the tiny, aluminum spikes that will soon be full of reddish dust and dirt as it is destined to roam around on another world, making discoveries that may impact generations to come! "Awesome" is the only word that can begin to describe the experience.
We have an exceptional and exciting educational and scientific opportunity lying ahead of us. With Mars missions every 26 months for the next ten years, I sincerely hope the mention of the letters "J-P-L" will conjure up the same marvelous images and feelings of excitement for this present generation that it has for those of us who remember the triumphs of the past!
-- Sheri Klug teaches K-12 science in schools throughout the Owyhee County area in Idaho. Jim Rice studies Mars as a Ph.D. graduate student in ASU's Geography Department. On January 12, 1996, both had a rare opportunity to see the actual Mars Pathfinder hardware being prepared for landing on Mars.