NASA Open House Short on Space

by Nicole Bowman, Managing Editor

I have always been interested in space travel and exploration. When I was a young girl, I studied the stars and planets, dreaming about travelling among them someday. It wasn’t something I pursued as a career, but space has always held a special place in my imagination. Even now, I would rather hang an image of the Rosette Nebula in my home, than most modern art.

Earlier this year, I moved to Los Angeles, and I was excited to see many geeky space landmarks in person such as the Griffith Observatory. In fact, there are many exciting events at our fingertips in this area, which is one of my favorite things about my new home. For months, I had friends telling me about the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Open House event on October 10th and 11th. The open house is an annual event, where the JPL facility in Pasadena, California is open to the general public. Many of NASA’s projects are on display, such as robots, satellites, and the facilities where rockets are built. I almost couldn’t believe such an event was a reality. With my love of space exploration, of course I had to go.

20140905-155604-57364297But my launch clearance was not granted from mission control. I drove to Pasadena and got off the freeway by 9:00 am, then waited with my fellow space enthusiasts in a line of cars worthy of the Los Angeles traffic reputation, only to be barred entrance once reaching the main gate. JPL was letting in visitors at only one of their entrances, with no indication of how long to wait in the logjam of cars, until you were within 200 yards of the gate and you could see a sign telling you to turn back (after already spending several of your precious hours on this planet sitting in an automobile in the hot Californian sun). Online estimates said that over 70,000 people arrived at the JPL facility today trying to get in, and many were turned away like I was.

In my opinion, several factors contributed to make today a disappointment for so many. There has been an increased interest in NASA recently, due to discoveries like finding water on Mars and finally learning how big Pluto really is, which made people excited to attend. Pair this with the fact that NASA publicized their event heavily on social media, giving even more people the idea to visit. And the final straw, having 70,000 people show up when they only expected 20,000 (their open house average, even though they did not hit capacity last year) made the situation escalate from “Mission is a go” to “Houston we have a problem” very quickly.

Personally, I walked up to the main gate, even though many people told me it was closed, hoping that they had been misinformed (which sadly, was not the case). Only later did I think to look online and see if JPL had an official Twitter account. They do, and you can tell from the timing of their messages how quickly they realized they needed to shut down the entrance. In fact, the NASA JPL Twitter feed on Saturday was basically just a string of apologies, as the staff attempted to sooth hurt feelings. And you do have to feel sorry for some visitors, like this one, making such a long journey only to be denied access.


Of course, many people did attend the event today and had a fun time learning and exploring the campus. I wish I had been one of them. I do hope in the future NASA could implement some simple solutions, such as shuttle service for visitors or posting signage miles before the gate, to warn visitors of the long wait or percentage of capacity reached. Even offering a second open house event, or extending the number of days seems reasonable. After all, these brilliant minds can launch all kinds of complicated equipment into space – surely an open house event can’t be too difficult.