From a ragtag group of rocketeers shooting off their latest creations in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco, to a world leader in space exploration capable of sending a spacecraft into interstellar space and landing a car-sized robotic rover on Mars, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has come a long way in 78 years. The path it has followed has not been straightforward—the Lab’s history is full of twists and turns. Here, we look at several bites of that history, which just might contain a nugget or two you didn’t know.
The Suicide Squad
JPL traces its roots to a small band of young experimenters who started testing their handmade rocket engines in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco on Halloween day in 1936. The crew initially came together at Caltech, with the core group consisting of Frank Malina (MS ME ’35, MS AE ’36, PhD AE ’40), a graduate student who worked for Theodore von Kármán, then director of GALCIT (at that time the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech); and two local, self-taught rocket enthusiasts, Jack Parsons and Edward Forman.
According to JPL’s historian, Erik Conway, after the rocketeers completed a number of successful tests in the Arroyo, von Kármán was encouraged enough to give them space for a test facility at Caltech. When the group set off a couple of explosions there, including a detonation that launched a piece of a gauge straight into one of GALCIT’s walls, Conway says, people on campus started referring to them as the Suicide Squad. Soon enough the squad was asked to do their work elsewhere and landed back in the Arroyo, where they leased some land from the city of Pasadena.
The crew went on to secure funding from the National Academy of Sciences to develop what would be known as Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO) rockets, which gave airplanes extra oomph while taking off from short runways. That work eventually led, in 1944, to the formation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The Father Of The Chinese Space Program
The Suicide Squad’s efforts spawned several important innovations, not the least of which was the development by Parsons of the first castable solid propellants, which made rocket motors more stable and storable. Conway says that later JPLers improved upon the original design, paving the way for the solid rocket motors that were used, for example, to help launch the space shuttles.
A lesser-known aspect of JPL’s origin story is the journey of Tsien Hsue-shen (PhD ’39), or Qian Xuesen as currently transliterated. Originally from China, Tsien was one of a handful of students to join the Suicide Squad in its early years and was one of the authors of the proposal submitted to the U.S. Army in 1943 that first used the name Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He went on to advise the Army on ballistic-missile guidance during World War II and later debriefed Nazi rocket scientists as a temporary lieutenant colonel. During the McCarthy era, Tsien was accused of having Communist leanings and had his security clearance revoked. When he tried to return to China, the U.S. government held him under virtual house arrest, but he was eventually able to go home. In China, he applied his vast knowledge of aerodynamics and rocket propulsion, and through his work became known as the father of the Chinese missile and space programs.
The Rapid Birth Of Explorer 1
Shortly after the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into low Earth orbit on October 4, 1957, JPL was commissioned to develop America’s response. The Lab stepped up to the challenge and delivered Explorer 1 in a shockingly short 84 days. The accelerated delivery was enabled not only by an around-the-clock effort but also by work that JPL and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) had already conducted beginning in 1955 as part of a confidential reentry test vehicle program.
The project was aimed at proving that a heat shield could protect warheads from burning up upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. JPL built the upper stages of the new vehicle for the program, as well as a tracking system, and ABMA provided the rocket booster. In all, the program built nine sets of hardware, but after three tests— the last, on August 8, 1957, being completely successful—everyone was satisfied that the technology worked, and the unused equipment was placed in storage. When JPL got the go-ahead to begin working on an orbiting satellite, they were able to pull out that technology and hit the ground running.
From Rockets To Planets
In 1958, shortly after Explorer 1’s success, William Pickering, the Lab’s director at the time, and members of his senior staff decided that JPL’s future lay in interplanetary exploration. While it was clear that there would be competition from private companies in rocketry and Earth satellites, the planets were a wide-open field. “It made sense for them to go into business where there was no business,” says Conway.
The new focus was also ideal in light of the fact that Pickering and Caltech’s president at the time, Lee DuBridge, sought to shift the Lab’s work away from military research toward science. President Dwight Eisenhower made JPL part of NASA, and the Army officially transferred JPL to the new space agency in December 1958.
When engineers at JPL first started considering how to bring data back from planetary spacecraft in 1958, the first thing they did was ask Caltech astronomer John Bolton for a survey of the state of the art in radio telescope technology. They knew that in order to track spacecraft, they were going to be seeking relatively faint signals from space— just the type of thing radio astronomers were doing. Bolton had just written a paper on the topic that had not yet been published and was able to immediately provide the engineers with the information they needed to start piecing together a network that could help them track and keep in touch with spacecraft as Earth continued to rotate.
Today, JPL operates what is known as the Deep Space Network (DSN), with locations near Madrid, Spain; near Canberra, Australia; and at Goldstone, California. With multiple antennas at each location, the DSN supports all interplanetary spacecraft missions and some Earth-orbiting missions, providing a crucial link between Earth and our robotic emissaries in space.
The Center Of The Universe
JPL’s Space Flight Operations Facility, also known as the SFOF—pronounced “essfof ”—or as Building 230, is the central hub for the DSN. The facility is a designated National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. A plaque in the middle of the room dubs the location, half-jokingly, “The Center of the Universe.”
The Lucky Peanuts
On July 28, 1964, launch day for the Ranger 7 lunar impactor, tensions were running high in JPL’s mission operations room. The previous six spacecraft in the Ranger series had failed, and Dick Wallace, a mission trajectory engineer for the mission, thought handing out peanuts might dissipate some anxiety.
Ranger 7 succeeded beautifully, and now the lucky peanuts show up in mission control not only during launches but leading up to just about any risky maneuver. You might have noticed copious amounts of peanuts being handed out and consumed during the hair-raising landing of the Mars Science Laboratory in August 2012.
Got There First
Since its serendipitous yet second-place showing in the satellite space race set JPL on its current course of planetary missions, the Lab has seen a lot of firsts. Those missions, designed, built, and managed by JPL, propelled inaugural visits to Venus, Mars, Neptune, Uranus, and interstellar space.
The First Close-Up of Mars
In July 1965, JPL and the world were anxiously awaiting the first close-up image of the Red Planet, which would be delivered by Mariner 4 (PDF). The spacecraft flew by Mars on July 15 and started transmitting the pictures it took the next day at a frustratingly slow rate of eight and a third bits per second. Once the data had been received, the image still had to be processed. Getting impatient, members of the Mariner team started stapling to the wall strips of data related to one of the transmitted images, and coloring them by hand based on the brightness values of the pixels. That paint-by-number creation hangs today in Building 186 and is known as the “first image of Mars.”
The Ultimate JPL Walkabout
As JPL has grown and has continued to expand its role in space exploration, the number of buildings on its 177-acre site has increased in tandem. All of the facilities are assigned a number according to the order in which they were built. Buildings 1 through 10 no longer exist, so Building 11, constructed in 1943, is the oldest on JPL’s campus. Building 349, the Arroyo Parking Structure, is the newest.
In 2012, JPL graphic designer Luke Johnson decided to go on a tour of the buildings in numerical order. The walk that he thought he might complete in an afternoon ended up taking him on a 52.2-mile hike over four days. After his walkabout, he collaborated with a team of designers to create a map that is handed out to all new JPL hires. It includes highlights about what can be found in various buildings on campus. For example, the atomic clock housed in Building 298 is one of the world’s most stable clocks. Click here to download a hi res PDF of that map.
Header Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL/Caltech