After talking about it for a year, we finally went on the Jet Propulsion Lab tour! Yay--another thing gone from our to-do list! I'm glad we went, but I have to admit that much of the tour was like being stuck on a date with an Asperger's sufferer. The tour began with a rapid-fire talk that lasted something like thirty minutes touching on various historical points to do with JPL and Caltech and NASA. And then a JPL promo video narrated by Harrison Ford which was like a very bad Nova program on space. Granted, the talk was given in the auditorium which housed replicas of Voyager and Cassini, but it was a lot of tedium to suffer through. Afterwards there was a brief visit to a small museum, the highlight of which was a thermal camera you can check your temperature on, and then the actual tour.
But was it a tour? We only got to see one of the "clean rooms" where the JPL guys assemble the rovers and the "Dark Room" at the Space Flight Operations Facility. The dark room is what you usually see on TV when a launch happens--you know, the room where all the scientist are glued to their computer screens hoping against hope that their mission is a success. Today, there wasn't a launch so we only got to see about half-a-dozen bored people sitting at their desks while the tour guide talked for some ten minutes about how NASA uses UTC (coordinated universal time) because time is relative, etc. The "clean" room was fascinating though. Up high in a viewing gallery, you get to look down at guys dressed in "bunny" suits building stuff (this is what you're seeing in the video). "Bunny" suits are these all-white, anti-dust suits that people have to wear in order not to contaminate the equipment they're going to send up into space (it made me think I was touring Willy Wonka's chocolate factory because there's a similar scene in the 70s movie). Today the JPL staff was working on the outer container for the newest rover, Curiosity, which should reach Mars sometime in August 2012. At the end of the tour you get to see a full-scale replica and that's pretty cool. And I was impressed by how much the tour guides knew.
So would I recommend the tour?
If you are a Super Geek: yes.
If you are a Tepid Geek: sure, why not?
If you are a Non Geek: only if you want to impress a Super Geek.
And if you want to take a child? Man, I would definitely not recommend you take any child under eleven. I felt so sorry for these little tots as they suffered through the first forty-five minutes or so of endless talk and senseless video. During the talk, the tiny tots were fidget bombs. And during the video, all I heard was a non-ceasing chorus of small voices crying, "What happened?" This is because the video is so poorly written that you can't figure out what they're talking about when they discuss the missions. It's really a shame that JPL doesn't have a specific tour program for the very young, one that is interactive and full of fun things to do because shouldn't part of NASA's mission be geared towards inspiring little children? After all, one day these little children are going to be voting on whether NASA gets funded...