Sam McManis

Discoveries: Deep space, deep in the desert

Workers attend to the giant Mars antenna at NASAs Deep Space Network communications site in Goldstone.
Workers attend to the giant Mars antenna at NASAs Deep Space Network communications site in Goldstone. NASA/JPL-Caltech

If only it had a more rutilant tinge, this parched landscape 45 miles northeast of Barstow would look a lot like the images we’ve received of the terrain on Mars – except, of course, that we now know Mars has more water than California.

Such a setting in the vast Mojave Desert just seems right for a government-run operation called the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, home to NASA’s 14 uber-powerful deep dish antennas constituting its Deep Space Network, fondly shortened to DSN by acronym-loving federal employees.

Here, amid miles of boulder-strewn nothingness accented by a few hillocks bearing the barest three-day stubble of sagebrush, these massive and sensitive antennas are in constant electronic communication with such peripatetic vehicles as the Mars Rover, the Phoenix Mars Lander, probes exploring Saturn and Jupiter and, still sending out signals after all these years, Voyager I, the spacecraft launched in 1977 that has accrued some impressive frequent-flier miles (like 6.5 billion and counting). Who knows, these dishes might even be in contact with Matt Damon.

Along with DSN complexes in Spain and Australia, the “intelligence from alien realms” gleaned at Goldstone is funneled to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for analysis and dissemination.

It is, to be sure, mind-blowing to imagine that enormous hunks of metal “dishes,” outfitted with highly sensitive amplified receivers, can pick up the faintest of transmissions from spacecraft equipment that, in the words of NASA press material, give off only “20 watts, about the same as a refrigerator light bulb.” By the time it hooks up with a Goldstone antenna, the signal power “can be as weak as a billionth of a billionth of a watt.” Yet, even with fading power, JPL scientists, like teenagers sharing snaps of their muscle cars, can routinely show us high-res images of the Mars Rover traversing the Red Planet.

So a trip to where these images reach Earth is a must-see. And since even this newspaper’s travel budget precluded jetting off to Spain or Australia, a trip north of Barstow was eminently doable. You, the hardy traveler, might want to consider the diversion on your next epic Las Vegas excursion. It’s only 45 minutes off Interstate 15. Don’t fret: The casino tables aren’t going anywhere.

It does, however, take advance planning for the two-hour tour. There are two layers of security and bureaucratic hoop-jumping, since NASA leases land at the Fort Irwin Army Base, but neither pose major logistical headaches – unless you hail from outside the United States. Foreigners have to apply weeks, sometimes months, in advance and are subjected to NSA-level background checks. We Americans, though, simply need to call or email Goldstone’s peppy and professional public outreach coordinator, Leslie Cunkleman, a few days in advance. Providing we can produce a valid photo ID, proof of car insurance and car registration, we’re good to go.

Before I get to the cool antennas and satellite dishes, allow me a digression to muse about the curious, polite but slightly unsettling encounter that civilians face with military personnel and federal-government security guards.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems there’s some major power-tripping going on. When I pulled into the Fort Irwin Visitors Center, the first of three gantlets to run through, I encountered a line six deep of workers and delivery men handing over their papers, stating their business, posing for a mug shot, then waiting for their laminated Fort Irwin day passes. A man in front of me, whose long gray ponytail partially obscured the Harley Davidson logo on his jacket, told the Army officer (either very buffed or wearing a flak jacket underneath his uniform) that “I’m here to serve papers. Been here before.” A few clicks of the keyboard, and the process server was off to carry out his pleasant task.

I, however, ran into trouble. It wasn’t because my car registration read “McClatchy Newspapers” – the officer displayed no anti-media bias – it was just that my name had not appeared on that morning’s Goldstone Deep Space Network roster of tour-goers. Not on the list? You don’t exist. This necessitated several phone calls and walkie-talkie dispatches before it was cleared up. I sensed from the officer’s body language (erect spine, pursed lips, narrowed eyes) that Goldstone ranks pretty low on Fort Irwin’s list of priorities, being mere tenants and all.

Gantlet No. 2: the fort’s main gate, a pebble’s throw from the visitors center, where another officer examined my badge’s mug shot, then stared at my face, then back at the badge before waving me through. I had the gall to ask for directions and his perturbed expression signaled his annoyance. “First left,” he sighed. “Look for the sign.”

The third gantlet was the Goldstone gate, where Cunkleman waited with an all-business security guard in a reflective vest referred to only as Mr. Christian. He asked for my badge and driver’s license. In stepped a khaki-clad guard whose badge read “F. Hicks.” The two conferred for a good five minutes about whether to issue me badge No. 4 or No. 6. (Six it was.) Then Hicks handed me a clipboard with a waiver attached and said I was to initial each line as he read the rules, which ranged from “don’t take pictures of military equipment” to “do not feed or do anything with” the mountain lions, bobcats, burros and tortoises that roam the desert, to “the water, do not drink it.”

At last, Cunkleman took over, leading our caravan of four cars to a drive-by only of the Apollo Station, which features a 26-meter (85-foot) antenna built in 1966 for moon missions but now hooks up with a variety of unmanned orbiting satellites, including the ACE (Advanced Composition Explorer). Then we did another drive-by, this time of the BWG (Beam Waveguide) cluster of antennas, built in the 1990s for a host of deep-space missions.

Finally, the main attraction: the Mars Station. We parked and craned our necks at the looming 70-meter (230-foot) dish attached to a base 21 stories tall.

The dish was “offline” that morning for maintenance, but that didn’t quell the excitement of my fellow tour-goers, Cheryl Gaj of Thousand Oaks and Mike Zahra of Toronto. (Zahra, a Canadian engineer, had to fill out paperwork in advance and, being a foreigner, was given a thorough going-over by a vigilant series of Fort Irwin guards, believe you me.)

Whereas the scientifically inclined Zahra and Gaj wanted to delve into the intricacies of signal reception, I, the erstwhile English major, just made corny Matt Damon jokes about the movie “The Martian.”

Cunkleman humored me.

“There’s a direct link here to Matt Damon, actually directly into my cellphone,” she said. “Anyway, this Mars 70-meter antenna was built in 1966 and took 3 1/2 years to construct.”

All data and images beamed from deep space to the dish goes to JPL in Pasadena. But behind us stood the SPC (Signal Processing Center), where, well, the data is processed going Pasadena-bound. The adjoining DSNOR (Deep Space Network Operations Room) is where engineers stare intently at VMs (video monitors) and DSs (data screens), occasionally pushing buttons and clicking mouses.

“From each of their desks, they can control two antennas at one time,” Cunkleman said. “Projected there on the back wall is a portion of JPL’s seven-day schedule for tracking. It’s color-coded. Green means it’s tracking right now.”

A soundproof glass partition separated us from the desk jockeys behind the consoles. The worker closest to us, a man in sneakers, was slurping coffee and scanning five screens from his desk.

“He’s in charge of moving the antenna to point,” she said. “All the other screens show equipment so that he knows he’s in lock with the spacecraft and the data streaming one way or two way is functioning. Looks like it’s tracking Planet C, which is a JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) mission to Venus.”

Fascinating, but what’s that showing on the smaller screen farthest to the right on his desk? It looks like – wait, it is! – the home page for the Washington Post’s website.

“They still do have a regular desktop computer and access to Google,” Cunkleman said. “They aren’t completely cut off from the real world.”

It only seems that way on the long drive back to civilization – or, at least, Barstow.

Goldstone Deep Space Network

93 Goldstone Road, Fort Irwin

Tours: Free, offered Monday through Friday at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Call 760-255-8688 or email to reserve spots.

Note: U.S. citizens require a 72-hour “visitor notification” to Fort Irwin; foreigners a 30-day visitor notification.

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