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JPL: Science Fiction meets Science Fact in the Hills of Los Angeles

Looking across the room, sat a model of the Voyager spacecraft complete with gold record. One of our hosts saw my delight and said, “That’s not Voyager, but it is Vger.”

I’m a big fan of a certain kind of souvenir. Not the ones you see in every city of a country or state that you are visiting. I love to collect things from he places I visit that remind me not only of the place I was visiting but also a fond memory of my time there. This has resulted in a collection of everything from t-shirts to pub coasters to menus to river rocks, and of course I have my memories.

I had a chance to visit NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena a few weeks ago while wearing my ACM SIGGRAPH Los Angeles volunteer hat, and made a few new memories. One of the events that was proposed and voted in was an evening at JPL entitled: “What’s New at JPL?”  An easy sale to a tech hungry crowd raised on Tang and tales of Jedi’s, myself included. Can you say “field trip”?

So a little about JPL so this seems like a serious blog. According to its Wikipedia page, which I hope they keep an over-sightful eye on, JPL can trace its history back to 1936 when it conducted a set of rocket experiments. In 1943, it officially became an Army facility operated by Caltech. In October, 1954, when NASA was founded, JPL was moved from being under the Army’s oversight to being the new space agency’s primary planetary spacecraft center. The collison of JPL and NASA must have sounded like a starter pistol. JPL went from developing weapons systems, to designing and operating space exploration missions to discover the origins of the universe and send man into space.

The cult TV show STAR TREK was launched into the minds of the budding new media generation on September 8, 1966. So on July 20, 1969, when my mother made me sit in front of our 13-inch black and white television to watch a very small round object being approached by an even smaller cylindrical object, also known as the Apollo 11, I was less than impressed. I was also barely able to feed myself without help and a bib. Till I started working in the digital industry, I lived firmly on the science fiction fan-girl planet. I wanted all art and cared little for the science. Since coming to work in this pixel driven industry, I haven’t learned any new math, but I have come to appreciate the science holding up the animated scenery behind films with outer space as their stage. Less than a month after STAR TREK premiered, NASA celebrated its first soft landing on the moon in October 1966. As JPL grew in resources and knowledge, more requests for scientific advice from Hollywood began coming into the laboratory, establishing what would become a long-standing relationship between science fiction entertainment and science fact R&D in Los Angeles, the home of both Hollywood and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL was the birthplace of digital image acquisition and processing, as a simple sign states when you enter the visualization area. In brief, digital imaging was developed for use in scientific and military missions during the 1960s and 1970s. The process reduces artifacts created by the analogue based issues of traditional film cameras. In most space imagery, heavy algorithms are used to process non-image data into brilliant recognizable images of terrains that can not physically be visited, yet. They have also come up with unique ways of figuring out the colors of the universe with only black and white data. As digital imaging technology became affordable to filmmakers, it replaced many of the traditional animation and special visual effects techniques. Bringing the technology full circle, JPL also uses animated visualizations to predict the progress of its missions, such as the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory visualizations. The difference between a science fiction film pre-visualization and a space mission pre-visualization is that one seeks to make a non-existent world real, while the other seeks the real origins of the existing world. And of course, JPL has to consider the hard laws of gravity and motion when creating their pitch, while we in the entertainment industry get to play with physical laws as much or as little as needed. JPL likes to share its work with the public. The laboratory recently did some work expanding and updating its theater, and putting a fresh face on its museum for the open house this past May.  Both have a few large items of note, to say the least. One particularly overwhelming object was the retired lens from the Hubble telescope. It looked, other than its sheer bulk, very unassuming.  Then we were directed to some small pockmarks at the front end of the housing that were made by small comets hitting the housing. I took a picture, but it just didn’t capture the magic of the object.

Voyager 1 - NASA Public Domain image

Looking across the room, sat a model of the Voyager spacecraft complete with gold record. One of our hosts saw my delight and said, “That’s not Voyager, but it is Vger.” He obviously didn’t know that he just multiplied my delight times two. The covergence of the physical presence of the craft in front of me and the memories that it brought back from the world of Star Trek made me even more delighted. If the craft was actually just Voyager, it would not have had as much meaning to me. I took a picture of it as well, all the while knowing that this wasn’t the kind of souvenir I could photograph. It would have to live inside of me. This trip to JPL made me feel how much of a contender memory is as a souvenir of the mind. In this age of pixels and algorithms, more and more of our memories have to be stored in our grey matter and taken out like a VR game to replay.  As I stood beside the model of Voyager that was Vger, I admit I felt a certain amount of awe for the cultural treasures that we have sitting around Los Angeles, and the long history of technological development between our twin industries of science and entertainment that has made it possible. I’d tell you more, but then how could I make you come to the May 10, 2011 LA SIGGRAPH meeting? Just kidding, the important is that you see this rich history for yourself and make a few memories along the way. If you can’t attend the LA SIGGRAPH meeting event, JPL is hosting another open house May 14 and 15 in 2011.  I will tell you that the “What’s New at JPL” LA SIGGRAPH chapter meeting be previewing the upcoming MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) Mission using spicy science language and stunning visualizations created at the home of digital image processing. MSL is scheduled to launch in November 2011, and it boasts a the craft that will perform the first-ever precision landing on Mars and contains a roving, robotic science lab to study the planets habitability, geology, climate in an effort to prepare for human exploration of the red planet.

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