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