When we imagine NASA missions, we tend to imagine them being developed against a backdrop of palm trees (Cape Canaveral) or oil fields (Houston). But in reality, the heart and soul of American space exploration is located thousands of miles away, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is NASA’s 76-year-old research and development arm. As Emily Badger wrote a few days ago, JPL has driven nearly all of NASA’s accomplishments. The very first rockets? Yep, developed by JPL. Missions to Saturn and Jupiter? Check. All those happy NASA employees hugging each other (and inadvertently becoming Internet famous) after Curiosity’s successful landing? They were at JPL.
With over 100 missions spanning seven decades, it’s tough to convey the full breadth of JPL’s activity in words. So the Lab developed this neat little visualization, which charts every mission chronologically, versus its distance away from the sun. We see most of the moon missions in the '60s and '70s, while missions to explore Earth (typically with satellites) are grouped towards the turn of the millennium, when the shuttle program was winding down. The dotted lines show us what the lab has planned for the future—more Mars missions, clearly, and intriguingly, more exploration of the universe at large.
As Badger notes, JPL was an early driver of California’s development as a center for tech. Everything from parts of the iPhone’s camera, to the Curiosity rover itself, was developed by the lab. Like Microsoft (and countless surf rock bands), JPL’s whole operation began when a few semi-drunk kids started tinkering in the backyard.