Contrast the scenes in the Mission Control room from the 1960s and today. In the 1960s, we saw a roomful of white men in Houston, Texas, wearing white short sleeved dress shirts and skinny dark ties, chain-smoking, drinking coffee (we hope), and looking a lot like they were on a Mad Men set.
With today’s successful landing of the Mars InSight vehicle, the Mission Control room in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California couldn’t have looked more different. There were all sorts of people of color, lots of women, no smoking, and everyone was wearing the same maroon shirt with the InSight mission logo. One controller was even sporting a natty fedora.
That’s California, baby.
Monday’s Mars landing wasn’t just another scientific achievement for the American people working in collaboration with French and German scientists. It was a new technological win for the state of California. A few years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown said, half-jokingly, that California would build “its own damn satellite.”
We can. We do. All the time.
The InSight mission goal is to analyze the interior of Mars, and to monitor seismic activity. Who better than Californians to do that?
This isn’t the only ride into space and onto Mars that California has run. This is yet another major accomplishment for Caltech, which works with NASA at the heart of the research and science for this mission and many other current projects: Curiosity, the Mars Rover program; Juno, the Jupiter mission; the Dawn mission to explore dwarf planet Ceres and the asteroid Vesta, to name just a few.
The 1960s Ranger lunar probe — which laid the groundwork for the moon landing — and the 1970s Voyager interplanetary spacecraft were JPL projects, and the list goes on: the Galileo probe (Jupiter), the Magellan probe (Venus), and Pioneer probe (outer solar system) are all in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech pantheon.
What does all this state investment in a school like Caltech in California lead to? The moon. Mars. Jupiter. Voyager just exited the solar system last year, so that’s how far the investment has gone, not to mention working as a force multiplier for thousands of technology jobs in the Golden State during decades of research.
Programs like the JPL are crucial not just for current technological applications in space. This investment leads to more STEM students in California (and nationally) leading us into the next generation of space travel, not to mention corollary earthbound pursuits. Climate change and the attendant research into how mankind can adapt are crucial going forward, and this state is at the forefront of that technology
In a political environment where science is sometimes disregarded and, frankly, ignored, California is out front. We get it. Not only do we get it, we also do it.
Mark Monday’s Mars landing as yet another milestone in California’s tech leadership. When someone outside the state disparages us as chai latte-obsessed kale chewers, we will wave to them from the surface of Mars.
Pass the chai latte, and salute the men in the fedoras and the women of color in JPL’s Mission Control room. We’re out front on that, too.