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Photos: From Rockets To Chuck Berry, A Look Back At JPL's 80 Years

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The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been (and still is) one of the most revered institutions in Southern California. On one hand, it approaches the world with the sober honesty of science. On the other, it regards everything with the inquisitiveness of a child. If you want to find an example of this dichotomy, just check out the pumpkin-carving contest they held this Thursday.

Through the decades, it has stood as a bastion of exploration and curiosity, and this Monday it'll be celebrating its 80th birthday. How has JPL, which actually started off as a rocket-testing program for the Army, changed over the years? JPL historian Erik Conway tells us that the research center has gone down a long road indeed.

JPL is turning 80 on Monday. Has the agency gone through some big shifts in terms of its mission statement?

Of course, it has shifted quite dramatically. JPL was an Army weapons laboratory from World War II to 1958. And then it joined NASA, which was created in 1958. And by its own choice it became a leader in planetary exploration. So we've had quite a large shift in direction when we directed our attention to space exploration.

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And JPL precedes NASA.

Yes. And we're not the only ones. Some of the other NASA centers are older than NASA. We counted our initiation date in 1936.

After JPL shifted its focus to space exploration, were there changes in philosophy within this field?

In its first decade as a NASA center, JPL was principally interested in planetary exploration. Then, in the 1970s, it started building a portfolio in Earth science missions, as well as launching an ocean observing satellite. Now Earth science and Earth observation, at large, are about a third of our business. So we added this to the portfolio but didn't stop doing planetary exploration. And I think another thing is that we've developed an interest in exoplanets [planets that orbit stars other than our sun]. There was the first discovery of these in 1990. This is certainly a big interest among lots of researchers at JPL now. It's just so fascinating to discover that there are probably millions of worlds, of which we've found thousands today.

Do we know if any of these exoplanets are habitable?

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Some small fraction of them might turn out to be habitable under our definition of what is "habitable." At the moment we can't really prove any of that. The technology exists, but hasn't been stuck in an advanced-enough telescope to be shot into space yet. But I would say we should expect to be able to do that within the next two decades.

When you think of the largest milestones for JPL, what comes to your mind?

During the Army years, it was developing the first American ballistic missile technology. At NASA, it was the first successful planetary missions. There was the 1962 Venus fly-by, and the 1965 Mars fly-by. There's the first planetary orbiter in 1971. And what is still the only exploration of Uranus and Neptune, which happened with Voyager 2 in '86 and '89.

What about the recent explorations of Mars?

JPL was a participant of the Viking lander but it wasn't the leader of that mission. Most people make the mistake of thinking that. The actual landing operation was done at JPL, so we got a lot of credit for that, but the mission was led by the Langley Research Center. What would be true is that JPL developed the first planetary rovers with the Mars Pathfinder in 1997. That was certainly a technological milestone.

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What is the situation with funding? It seems as if the programs are getting more monetary support from the government.

That's true. NASA, overall all, took a big hit during the sequestration fight. And the budget dropped from around $19.8 billion to around $16.5 billion at the low point. It's rebounding now, however. So NASA as a whole is doing better than it had since 2012 or so. JPL benefits from that, of course, but not exclusively. It's helpful for the other agencies too.

I was looking at some of the vintage photos of JPL. Of course, the agency is a serious research center. But I also get the sense that it's a fun place to work at. It seems as if grown adults have been turned into giddy teenagers, working on a neat science project in their own garage. Is that youthful, homespun spirit still there today? Or has it changed?

Things have changed somewhat. JPL is much bigger than it was. When you start from four people and wind up with 5,000, you certainly grew. And one thing is that there are so many diverse things happening.

There's less of a certain sense of unity, you might say. Through the early 1990s, all the labs at JPL were often working on one big project. Now that's just not true anymore. Now we may have 35 different projects going on at the same time. So, there isn't that kind of devotion to a single thing. With that said, we still have a lot of fun doing what we do. People stay with us because they enjoy what we do. But, yes, I think that singular focus isn't quite there as much. That's just the way the agency has evolved.

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I guess when you walk down the block at JPL, and everyone you see is working on the same project as you are, that would evoke a more fraternal feel there.

Yes. There's more camaraderie. Now, the question you ask a co-worker is "which project are you working on now?"

Is JPL doing anything special to celebrate its 80th?

We're doing a Halloween party during our lunchtime on Monday. That will constitute our celebration. We did a very large thing for our 70th birthday, and it won't be quite as grandiose this time.

But yes, we're bringing back the Halloween party. We used to do it every year, but, and I'm not sure why, it disappeared a few years ago. Now we're using the 80th as an excuse to bring it back. It's actually pretty fun. There are a lot of creative people at JPL, so it should be fun to see what costumes they come up with.

What's the craziest costume you've seen?

Of boy. For me, the most fun costumes are the ones where people get together in groups and plan it out. So you get three or four people dressed in collaboration. One year we got the Spice Girls. We see a lot of superheroes and robots, too.

Full-disclosure: My dad works at JPL and, for years, told me that he made "air conditioners." It wasn't until maybe the 8th grade that I realized he was a "Cryogenic Cooler Designer" and was, you know, sending stuff into space.