Touring the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

I’ve always been fascinated by space exploration, which over the years has led me to regularly tune into space shuttle launches, follow the latest Mars rover news and read science fiction, just to name a few such activities. So when I learned that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) offers free public tours, I immediately signed up for one on the first Monday of the new year. What better way to start off 2011 than to visit a place that is doing such exciting work and helping us explore the Earth, the solar system and the universe beyond.

If you’re not familiar with JPL, it’s a 177-acre facility located in Pasadena that is the lead center in the United States for the robotic exploration of our solar system. JPL was originally founded in the 1930s by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which now manages the Laboratory for NASA.

In addition to developing high-profile spacecraft, JPL utilizes its expertise to enhance our understanding of earth science, astronomy and physics, as well as to develop a variety of technologies in the areas of telecommunications, deep space navigation and communication, digital image processing, imaging systems, intelligent automated systems, instrument technology, microelectronics and many others.

After checking in at the visitor reception center, the tour participants walked to the von Kármán auditorium, named after professor Theodore von Kármán, who was head of Caltech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory and founder of JPL. There our guide shared some of the lab’s fascinating history, we learned about the Voyager and Cassini missions and spacecraft and we watched a brief film called Journey to the Planets and Beyond, which provided an overview of JPL’s historic missions and accomplishments.

Voyager Spacecraft

We were then invited next door to the visitor center, where we viewed models of the Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity rovers, all of which were sent to Mars, and learned more about our ongoing exploration of the red planet. I could have spent more time in this room, since we were surrounded by models and displays related to many fascinating JPL missions, such as Galileo to Jupiter. 

From the visitor center we walked to the Spacecraft Assembly Facility. This building was by far the highlight of the tour for me. From the upstairs visitor gallery, we were provided an excellent vantage point from which to observe technicians in bunny suits assembling NASA’s newest Mars spacecraft called the Mars Science Laboratory. It was really amazing to see the various parts of the spacecraft and rover spread out in this large, white clean room and think that in a matter of months it will be completed, shipped to Cape Canaveral and then launched on its long journey to Mars in the Fall of 2011.

Mars Science Laboratory Rover – Photo via JPL web site

Mars Science Laboratory Under Construction in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility

The tour ended with a visit to the main JPL Space Flight Operations Facility (i.e. control room). If you remember watching the televised landings of the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), you’d recognize this room, since it’s where all of the key program participants celebrated these historic events. Once our guide finished explaining how the room is used and the role it plays at the Lab, the tour was over and we walked back to the visitor center.

Space Flight Operations Facility

When I showed up at JPL yesterday afternoon, I really didn’t know what to expect. Yes, I had read a brief overview of the tour on the JPL web site, but you never really know how much you’re going to learn, how good your guide will be and whether you’ll feel the time was well spent until after the event. Now that I’ve taken the tour, I can tell you it is well worth your time.

Tour Information

The JPL Public Services Office offers tours free of charge for groups and individuals on an advance reservation basis. Visitor parking is also available free of charge. You can learn about the various tour options and schedule your tour by visiting the Lab’s Public Tour web page.

Please note: I participated in what the Lab calls the Visitor Day Tour. While this is definitely a family friendly activity, I wouldn’t recommend bringing children under the age of six. This is not a hands on experience and the guides impart a lot of information in a relatively short period of time. When my kids were younger they definitely would have quickly lost interest and prevented me from getting the most out of this experience. 


Jet Propulsion Laboratory
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena, CA 91109

Directions and Maps

JPL History

You can learn more about the Laboratory by reviewing these online resources: