At JPL, history is a living continuum between yesterday, today, tomorrow, and beyond. It’s the timeless aspect of what we have done, and what we will do. History is something we make every day.
After a small-but-infamous lab explosion on the Caltech campus, Professor Theodore von Kármán of Caltech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory sought out an offsite location for his students to conduct their experimental rocket launches.
On Halloween 1936, in the dry Arroyo Seco Canyon wash, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, five Caltech grad students and two amateur rocket enthusiasts helped jump-start the Space Age with the launch of several rockets.
This would become the present-day site of JPL.
In 1944, with the German V-2 rocket program threatening our allies in Great Britain, the U.S. Army approached von Kármán to conduct an analysis of the program. Von Kármán enlisted his students in the analysis. Subsequently, the Army asked von Kármán and his charges to propose a program that would challenge the German V-2s. In the proposal documents, they referred to themselves as the “Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” the very first use of this appellation.
In the Army
Under the aegis of the U.S. Army, the Laboratory conducted more elaborate rocket tests. Before long, they moved beyond the basics of aerodynamics and propellant chemistry to include new tech for space flight, communications, radio telemetry for spacecraft navigation and control, primitive computers, and planetary exploration.
Although the focus had grown well beyond jet propulsion alone, the name JPL stuck. It endures today as a reminder of our roots in the wildcat ethos of early rocketry, even as JPL has gone on to design, test, and conduct performance analytics.
While our purview grew well beyond rockets as weapons systems, JPL in the Army years was still fueled and guided by a Cold War mindset. It all came to a head—and ushered in the next era of JPL and space flight generally—in October 1957.
Sputnik and the birth of NASA
In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite—the first man-made object in space. All at once, much of the focus of the Cold War shifted from the prospect of ground conflict to the implications of the Space Race.
The U.S. needed a fast response to Sputnik, and JPL came through. America’s first satellite, Explorer I, went into orbit 3 months later, in January 1958. This led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA—in October 1958. Two months later, in December, JPL was transferred to the newly created civilian agency.
With the transfer to NASA, JPL shifted focus from the rockets themselves to their payloads—what they could carry, what they could do. This was the beginning of the “scientific spacecraft,” and it put JPL at center-stage in the escalating Space Race with the USSR.
In 1962, America launched the JPL-built Mariner 2, which became the world’s first spacecraft to encounter another planet with its fly-by of Venus. This began a long string of historic firsts for NASA and JPL, including the well-known triumphs of the heroic Apollo lunar missions and extending into unmanned, robotic exploration throughout our solar system.
Another 1960s landmark was the creation of the NASA Deep Space Network in 1963. JPL developed this worldwide network of antennae for communicating with all NASA interplanetary spacecraft—eliminating the need for each mission to create its own communications network—and we still manage it for NASA today.
The Era of Large Space Missions
In the 1970s, JPL began a series of large, complex, one-of-a-kind missions that continues to this day. Massive distances and years-long deployments meant that sophisticated robotics took the center stage. The list of these missions paints a sprawling picture of the explosion in space exploration during the late 20th century and beyond.
In 1973, Mariner 10 became the first mission to use gravity assist boost from one planet to another—an important breakthrough that enabled all longer-distance missions since. As Mariner flew past Venus, a gravity-assist swingby help catapult it to Mercury. In 1975, the Viking missions started the search for life on Mars.
The 1978 Seasat satellite became one of our first major dedicated Earth science projects, signaling the use of space missions to learn more about our home planet.
The Voyager missions carried us to the outer planets of our solar system. Galileo journeyed to the Jupiter system. Cassini-Huygens traveled to the Saturn System. Juno left for Jupiter in 2011. And in August 2012, Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause to become the first human spacecraft in interstellar space.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, JPL explored new frontiers by collaborating with nations and other space organizations around the world—some as partners in joint missions, and some as hosts for our installations around the globe. Among them, the European Space Agency, Italian Space Agency, French Space Agency, Japanese National Space Development Agency, Argentina, India, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Chile, Spain, and Australia.
History continues with the Mars 2020 mission, including a sophisticated new rover to examine more closely habitability of the Red Planet. A major new mission will also look for the possibility of life on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Of course, there is more history to be made in the future. What will it be? Maybe you will be the one to tell that story.