Todd J. Barber, Cassini lead propulsion engineer
Springtime in Pasadena always brings two wonderful traditions to JPL -- the nationally popular "Take-Your-Child-to-Work" day and our annual Open House. I was fortunate enough to participate in both events this year.
"Kiddie" Day, as the former is colloquially nicknamed, is incredibly popular each year at the lab, with hundreds of participants. One of the coordinators of this event at JPL, Nancy Kapell, is a dear friend of mine. To say I owed her a favor after seemingly endless supplies of outreach "goodies" for my many school talks is a gross understatement. I knew this busy annual event would soon be upon us, so I called her up and offered to help. She immediately put me to work in the penhole planetarium, a makeshift contraption of linked garbage bags and an electric fan for inflation. During my brief hour in the darkened tent, I watched the night sky come to life as student after student punched carefully planned pen holes in the walls and ceiling. What an inventive and creative way to bring the night sky to life, even at ten in the morning! I even tried my hand at one of the night sky's simpler constellations, gaining new appreciation for the steady hand required. Before returning to the office, I did manage to quickly view the other events on the mall, including stomp rockets, space tattoos, planisphere construction, and (my favorite) the "Albert Einstein" hair salon courtesy of one Van de Graaff generator.
With this perhaps warm-up event behind us, many hundreds of volunteers on lab prepared for our annual embrace with the taxpayers who make our journeys of discovery and awe possible. I finally was able to volunteer for an Open House shift with the Cassini team, long overdue, given my eleven years of working on the project.
Saturday, May 3rd, dawned bright and clear, yet cooler than prior open houses held later in May. I began my day with Randii Wessen, a mentor of mine and a fixture at the lab. We both agreed to staff the full-sized Galileo model in the main museum (and not just because this locale is air-conditioned). Randii and I had the best time "babysitting" the museum, answering questions about Galileo, and interacting with people who graciously had given up a few hours to see what we do at this unique institution.
My time with Randii and Galileo flew by too quickly, but the afternoon belonged to Cassini. Following a hastily devoured lunch, I planted myself by the 1/4-scale model of Cassini-Huygens and prepared for hundreds of passersby. The wonderful, thought-provoking questions kept my mind engaged, but I think I'll remember the sheer joy on people's faces the most. The mega globe of an inflatable Saturn, a rich and diverse collection of images, our scale spacecraft model, and the full-size mural enticed thousands who passed our way. I can't wait for next year's installment of these two priceless opportunities. Flying this spacecraft is wonderfully challenging and rewarding, but sharing its accomplishments with those who make it possible (and those who will make the next generation of space science discoveries possible) is truly an honor.