The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is an American research and development center located in Pasadena, California. Federally funded and managed on behalf of NASA by the California Institute of Technology, the laboratory functions as a construction site for robotic spacecraft, though scientists and astronomers also utilize the facility to conduct missions into Earth’s orbit and beyond. NASA’s Deep Space Network is operated at JPL.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s origins began in the 1930s around the time when America’s the first rocket experiments were underway in Arroyo Seco, Los Angeles. Graduate Students at Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), aided by engineer Theodore von Karman, their thesis adviser, arranged financial support from the Unite States Army to assist with a “GALCIT Rocket Project.” In 1941, the first jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) rockets were showcased to the Army, which led to the team to establishing the Aerojet Corporation with the intention of creating additional JATO rockets. In 1943, this little science project earned the designation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, officially operated by the U.S. Army and contracted by the university, ushering in the JPL Army Years. During this time, JPL designed and manufactured several weapon systems including intermediate range ballistic missiles while testing rockets at the White Sands Proving Grounds and in Goldstone, California. Collaborating with some of the world’s greatest pioneers in rocketry like Wernher von Braun, many scientific endeavors including an early concept of a lunar lander emerged from this period. In 1958, JPL operations transferred from the Army to NASA, where it became the agency’s primary planetary spacecraft center.
JPL engineers designed and operated many early spacecraft, like the Ranger and Surveyor, paving the way for future space missions including the those of Apollo Program leading up to now. JPL employed female mathematicians earlier than most agencies during the 1940s, where all female groups used mechanical calculators to calculate trajectories. Dana Ulrey became the first female engineer employed by JPL to join the team of male engineers working on the Ranger and Mariner mission tracking teams.
Today, JPL continues the tradition of expanding the boundaries of human limits and curiosity, as they manage turbulent historic Martian landings and roll out the pathway into a lunar future. The staff of JPL is around 6000 full time employees, though at any given time there are thousands of additional contractors working, along with grad students students and interns. In 1985, the Space Flight Operations Facility and the Twenty-Five-Foot Space Simulator were declared National Historic Landmarks, both which reside within JPL. Interested in visiting the facility? Well, you’re in look, as free tours remain open to the public.