Nerd Day At NASA

I spent the day in La Canada Flintridge. That’s where NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lives. NASA is very regimented with specific missions for each of its facilities. JPL is unmanned exploration.

Mars rovers? Check.

Saturn orbiter? Of course.

Mission to a comet with a small payload actually landing on it? Hell yeah.

If there was an Engineering Olympics, I’d put my money on JPL. They can make complex systems work, even after a rocket launch and flight through the cold vacuum of space.

Did I mention they’re landing on a comet? And they’re doing it without Bruce Willis!

I was invited along with about 40 other enthusiasts with social media reach.

It was not a boy-a-thon. That’s what I expected. Probably 60/40 male/female.



We started at Mission Control. I’ve become jaded. I didn’t jump out of my skin as I walked in, but it’s that kind of place. One guy was sitting at a desk with so many computer monitors, they were dovetailed behind one another. He was supervising Cassini, in orbit around Saturn. That’s a one-person-job.

On the wall huge monitors showed which earth stations, 13 on three continents, were in use. I took note of Voyager 2 being heard by one of the biggest dishes. As I type it’s 37 years old. It’s so far away that even at the speed of light it takes 29 hours 20 minutes to find out if a command you sent was received.

It was like a scene out of a well done scifi movie, except it’s real! It was a day at the office for the crew staring at their screens. They run spaceships for a living. They don’t analyze the data. They make sure it’s flowing.


JPL uses liquid nitrogen. Who cares why? It looks cool.




We went to a lab where experiments are ongoing for new types of rocket engines. We were briefed on Ion engines (like Stars Wars, except real) and shown a Hall Effect Engine through viewports into a vacuum chamber. Thrust from engines like these are the future of space. The promise is less fuel mass and more speed potential–both critical for interplanetary work.



IMG_6778Next up Mars Rovers. They’ve got to test them somewhere. JPL’s got the sandbox. It has been used.

Who knew aluminum tires wore out so quickly?



The SMAP Mission is launching in January. The spacecraft goes to the pad at Vandenberg AFB, Wednesday. This is the actual spacecraft that will fly.



The real reason for this #NASASocial are two cometary missions coming soon. I’m interested in these because I’ll be hosting’s coverage. There was a two hour presentation with lots of the scientific and engineering players.

First up, Comet Siding Springs is a few days away from a close approach to Mars. There are a handful of observer satellites orbiting Mars. Spacecraft have been reprogrammed to record the event. Depending on what happens this could be a big deal, but no one was promising.

You haven’t heard much about the comet yet because it hasn’t been visible in North America.

Second is Rosetta, now orbiting weirdly shaped Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at an altitude of about 10 miles. As cool as that is, there’s more.

On November 12 Rosetta will send a lander to the comet’s surface! This mothership has been in space for more than 10 years, including a few where it was in an induced digital deep sleep, just for this moment.

I asked a mission scientist how they’d stick a package on a comet? With little gravity wouldn’t it just bounce off into space? Yes! So its coming with thrusters to push it tight to the surface where it will deploy harpoon like anchors.

We were brought to NASA to be impressed. It worked.

One thought on “Nerd Day At NASA”

  1. I’m so jealous that you got to go there. Looks like it would just be a cool place to visit/work. Must have been like big kid in a candy store 🙂

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