Seen from the air on a can’t-help-staring-at-the-sky

technicolour Californian day, JPL looks like

some tantrum-raging Olympian child’s bucket of building

blocks emptied out onto the Earth: countless bricks of sun-

bleached bone-white stone, home to incalculable numbers

of calculator-punching number-crunching minds

whose blackboard is infinity and whose playground,

when they dare to rest and draw exhausted breath, is Time itself.


Inside: countless cave-like workshops where, hidden from the Sun,

myriad modern day Magellans muse over ways to trace

out routes between the countless worlds that swirl and whirl

‘round Sol. With faces bathed in fluorescent haze from flickering

monitors and screens they seem lost inside a Titanian dream

and yet are wide awake and working towards one common goal –

to seek and see each rocky nook and icy cranny

of the solar system and show their beauty to Mankind.


Here, where exploration is obsession, and knowledge is a drug

as addictive as any credit card chopped powder or crackling

crystal bought on LA’s maze of streets, our feet tap to the rhythm

of planets waltzing round the Sun. “Fun’ is counting craters

on a distant moon’s dark side, finding that a theory thought

as solid as a planet’s iron core for generations is more brittle

than meringue; tearing up textbooks from bygone years

and cheering as their confetti ‘facts’ are flung into oblivion.


This is a magical place where space itself is under siege,

where nothing less than Man’s destiny is being seeded,

the Future’s foundations laid down for millennia to come.

Some say there is no soul here, that all the cold computers

chill the hearts and minds of those whose task it is

to mine the Black for glittering nuggets of new data.

But their hearts are numb, their souls unaware of the

Universe’s eye staring at them from the Dark.


How sad for them – they cannot feel Leonardo’s laughing

spirit walking and stalking these planet portrait plastered

corridors, cannot sense his steady, steadying hand on everything

we do; whispering in our ears he eases fears of failure and

defeat, planting seeds of hope and self-belief in our eager,

restless minds; gently turning our weary heads towards

the windows on work-late nights to remind us to stare

into a starry sky and dream of What Might Be…


True, compared to his our workshops may be bland and

plain – Pasadena, with its modest mountain range

and palm trees is no Renaissance-tinted Florence –

but he would recognise their worth, and work.

Where his desk was thick with wrinkled scripts

and parchments piled up high, ours lie under sedimentary layers

of laser-printed, peer-reviewed papers and .pdf files,

pictures of Saturn and Mars and rumpled copies of Astronomy.


We do not work by flickering candle flame as did he,

but see this solar system’s wonders in the bold and brutal

glow of low-voltage neon lights. iPods on loud we survive

long nights cocooned inside our cubicles, crowded with coffee cups

and coasters, posters from CASSINI and the MERs,

toppled CDs and cute model R2D2s, old blueprints and

cold bagels, jealous of how he had bowls of berries and fruit

to feed his genius mind until the next sunrise…


DaVinci had no secret ‘code’; to Know was all he craved,

and all gathered here are slaves to the same simple quest –

to test Man’s understanding of the Night and shine a light

into the Dark. Our easels are computers, our quill pens

red-lensed mice that click-a-click double time, designing

fragile metal butterflies to be sent fluttering from this world

and pass or circle others turning in the Great Out There,

revealing secrets strange enough to make even Leonardo swear.


As a youth DaVinci valued truth above all else:

one Appennine-wandering day he strayed upon a cave

and, peering into its mouth, found himself frozen with a fear

greater than he had ever known – a fear of the Unknown;

did a beast of fang-fat jaw and spine-splintering claws hide

inside the cavern’s heart? He had to know, even though his own life

could end if that were true. That’s what we do – walk through

creation’s caves, waving back at Earth when’er we find a dragon.


One distant day, when men and women stand on Terra #2,

looping round an alien sun, when Man’s first step on Titan is just

a memory and the first footprint on Mars is but an ancient myth,

the ships we’ve built here – the proud Pioneers, valiant Voyagers

and the Vikings of Barsoom – will be the stuff of legend;

Mariners immortalised in rhyme; Opportunity and Spirit held as dear

as the Lewis and Clark who lived five billion years before Sol fell.

And all will know they bore three crimson letters: JPL.


© Stuart Atkinson 2007

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2 Responses to JPL

  1. Pingback: JPL Visit (Part 4 of 4) « Cumbrian Sky

  2. Dee Doe says:

    Beautiful Stuart – you are a real ‘wordsmith’. Love the new site – must try and find time to read more – still hampered by modem connection running on elastic bands! New Year resolution – ‘Must try to get Broadband!’ Even half a Megabit must be quicker than present speed!

    Your trip to JPL sounds fabulous – reading your reports was almost like being there.

    Thanks for all your hard work – I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates it.


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