Longreads

Welcome to the Center of the Universe

Illustration by Jacob Stead

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Shannon Stirone | LongreadsMarch 2018 | 22 minutes (5,546 words)

The power has just gone out in mission control. I look to Jim McClure, operations manager at the Space Flight Operations Facility, and he assures me that everything is fine. A power outage like this hasn’t happened at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in nearly eight years, and while it’s only been out for a few seconds, the Deep Space Network is disconnected and NASA has temporarily lost contact with Cassini, the nearly 20-year-old space probe in orbit around Saturn, as well as all spacecraft beyond the moon.

We’re standing in JPL’s mission control, known simply as the Dark Room to those who work here. Five men and women are glued to their screens, the artificial pink-and-white glow highlighting their faces. I’ve been here twice before, but I have never seen this many people running the consoles. The operators are calm and hyper-focused despite the unexpected hiccup, both hands typing, eyes darting at one another’s screens.

While the quiet panic plays out, I walk over to a sunken plaque in the middle of the room that glows with blue neon lights: the center of the universe. Above it is a large metal coin embossed with the images of three spacecraft and a DSN antenna, below is JPL’s motto, “Dare Mighty Things.” Teddy Roosevelt offered these words during an 1899 speech in approbation of the virtues of a “strenuous life” and they are now synonymous with the risks taken when it comes to spaceflight. “Far better is it to dare mighty things,” he said, “to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

I catch a bit of conversation. “Are you having any luck over there?” the data controller asks the person sitting at the Tracking Support Specialist desk. “Not yet.” Above the consoles near the ceiling are six large television screens that curve around the room. Usually, these screens stream real-time telemetry from dishes around the world and are labeled with the name of the spacecraft they’re talking to. Right now, most of them are blacked out. The only active monitors display images of celebrities who’ve visited JPL: Matt Damon in the Mars Yard, William Shatner giving the Vulcan salute.

The “Dark Room,” also known as Mission Control, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. (Shannon Stirone)

McClure is nervously tapping a stack of round center of the universe stickers on a table. “The data is always stored, so it’s fine,” he says, trying to reassure me. “Once it hits the ground it’s stored.” The staff speaks to one another like doctors in an emergency room moments before attempting to jump-start a quiet heart. “Okay, trying to reconnect now.” The data controller grabs the paddles. “Not getting anything. Nothing. Trying again.” The Cassini Mission ACE, the liaison between Earth and the spacecraft, rushes in, his messenger bag slung over his shoulder, and mumbles something to McClure. He hurries to his station, lit up in neon blue, past the barricade with a homemade sign that reads, do not feed the ace — to the wolves. He plops his bag onto the floor, hunches over his desk, taps the keyboard, and begins trying to talk to Saturn.

When a mission launches into space, whether it is to Venus, Mars, or as far out as Pluto, we have to be able to track it, send commands, and receive data — all over a signal about as powerful as the wattage of a refrigerator light bulb. These faint whispers are hard to hear, and losing track of them for any length of time can be a harrowing experience. If the Deep Space Network goes down, if we permanently lose our connection to Cassini, it would not only be a loss of billions of dollars but also two decades of work.

***

The heart of the Deep Space Network started beating on Christmas Eve 1963, when JPL confirmed their long-term intentions of sending missions into deep space. It hasn’t been turned off since. Its dishes, operators, and radio astronomers around the world have worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the past 54 years. The DSN has many vital roles, but one of its biggest is to serve as the communication link between Earth and its robotic emissaries in deep space — anything from the moon and beyond. Every image we’ve ever received from deep space, every relay of scientific data, even those famous words the Eagle has landed, was collected by the dishes of the Deep Space Network. (In addition to being a vital communication link, the DSN also tracks potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids, monitoring around 100 each year.)

Like so many of NASA’s projects, the first generation of the Deep Space Network was born out of a military order. In 1955, the Department of Defense approved a JPL mission that would come to be known as Explorer-1; it was the first from JPL to use radio waves to track a satellite as it orbited the Earth. As the satellite curved around the planet, antennas placed around the globe would lock onto its location and send back telemetry to the people on the ground. This nascent tracking system was called Microlock, and it was the very beginning of the Deep Space Network.

When a mission launches into space, we have to be able to track it, send commands, and receive data, all over a signal as powerful as a refrigerator light bulb.

By 1958, the leaders of JPL wanted out of military projects. They didn’t see their special center being used to build rockets alongside the Army; they wanted to go to space. After much negotiation, JPL wiggled loose from the Army and were officially free to explore the solar system robotically with NASA. Their center would not send humans to the moon or Mars. They would conceive, design, and build robots to do the exploring in our stead. With as much foresight as one can have, the director of JPL at the time, William Pickering, knew this meant that they would always need a way to talk to their spacecraft. The functional but small Microlock system needed to expand.

Today, the DSN has three permanent stations around the globe: in Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia. Each location has one 70-meter dish standing 20 stories high and weighing a staggering 6 million pounds. These dishes are the DSN’s workhorses, built between 1966 and 1974. They are the antennas with the biggest ears, most suited to collecting high-resolution data like color images or a lot of science.

The rest of the network is made up of dishes with 34-meter antennas that can either talk to spacecraft on their own or can “array together” to form a more powerful signal. In total, there are 13 dishes positioned 120 degrees apart around the world talking to 35 different spacecraft. In 2014, the DSN clocked around 18,000 passes and averaged over 100,000 hours of tracking. As the Earth spins, there is always a dish able to receive or place a call, creating a level of assurance for the science teams on the ground. The dishes are so powerful that their aim only works if you’re at least 30,000 miles away from the Earth. The trouble is, the farther we venture out, the harder it is to hear the call.

Years ago, an intern at JPL created a website that allowed anyone to watch the antennas talking to the spacecraft in real time. DSN NOW, as it’s called, shows the downlinking and uplinking of data in real time. A solid squiggly line means we have found the spacecraft and are “holding hands” with it. A jagged squiggly line means we’re passing “envelopes” with information back and forth. Sometimes those envelopes contain the uplink, or commands. Curiosity: Drive to the left 30 degrees for five minutes to that weird rock and stop, shoot your laser, and send back the data when you’re done. The downlink from the spacecraft then comes back. Here’s the chemical composition of that weird rock you made me shoot at.

These conversations happen every day, and have for every spacecraft since NASA began exploring the solar system. This morning, before the blackout, the team was scheduled to uplink commands to Cassini. It is spring 2017, and there only a few months left on the mission, so it is vital to get as much information back from the spacecraft as possible. McClure has to leave to check on the systems and make sure everything is OK with the network. The power was only out for a minute, but the fact that William Shatner is staring down from overhead is not a good sign. I open the DSN NOW page on my phone — still silent.

When you put out a call and get nothing back, it can feel lonely and scary. It’s a reminder that we really do rely on these robotic explorers to get us the answers that we need. While NASA sends half a dozen people every year to live in the International Space Station, they spend the majority of their time operating a fleet of aluminum explorers. For the most part, our space program isn’t human, it’s robotic. And when these robots don’t respond, it’s a reminder of how alone we are on this little blue dot.

***

After 54 years of constant operation, the Deep Space Network is worn out.

The problem is not with the speed of the system itself, but rather the hard blows of budget cuts, cyberthreats, and the decay of decades-old hardware. Like much of NASA, which receives less than 1 percent of the total federal budget every year, the DSN is underfunded. Every year is a constant fight just to keep the money they have. From the NASA budget, Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN), which the DSN is a part of, gets less than 1 percent of that. The budget for the DSN is only around $200 million a year, and it covers everything from maintaining the dishes to the ongoing upgrades to the antennas to paying the 300-plus people who work at the dishes around the world. For comparison, the total value of all the robotic missions currently in deep space is around $25 billion and growing.

This insufficient infrastructure support has left the predominantly robotic space program gasping for air. During the launches to Mars around 2012, the system became overloaded, causing glitches in the uplinking and downlinking of dozens of spacecraft already in the network. Many scientists began to worry that the DSN wouldn’t be able to support the onslaught of missions vying for antennae time. With the Mars 2020 rover, Europa Clipper, ExoMars, and the James Webb Space Telescope all coming online in the next few years, the DSN will once again run into what NASA calls a time of “contention.” When multiple spacecraft need to talk to Earth at once, the phone lines can glitch and cause a sudden disconnection, creating gaps in the data sent and received, and depending on how crucial the commands are, these crowded times could mean the difference between a healthy spacecraft or one doomed to wander the cosmos alone.

NASA alone fights every year for proper funding from the government, receiving only one half of 1 percent of the federal budget since people walked on the moon. Since the early 1970s, NASA’s only major boost in funding has gone toward the SLS, NASA’s long-delayed super rocket. Funding for operations like the Deep Space Network has been slashed. In 2013, SCaN ordered the DSN to cut its funding even further, and as a result it has lost $100 million in five years, delaying upgrades to antennas and the installation of new dishes in all three centers. There is no sign that their budget will increase any time soon.

Every image we’ve ever received from deep space, every relay of scientific data, was collected by the dishes of the Deep Space Network.

It’s not just funding that the DSN is battling with. A 2015 NASA Office of Investigation report found that the network was extremely vulnerable to break-ins. Any large network is susceptible to hacking, but no other network is flying $25 billion worth of irreplaceable spacecraft.

According to a 2015 report by NASA’s Office of Investigation, the Deep Space Network has been hacked several times. The worst break-in on record originated in China in 2011, when intruders managed to infiltrate the highest security level clearance on JPL’s computers, gaining the ability to copy, delete, and modify user accounts and sensitive files. The investigation is still ongoing, even seven years after the attack.

There are many, varied security protocols in place at each NASA center, but the 2015 report found several areas where JPL and NASA were in violation of the standards meant to keep them secure. NASA isn’t lax about the state of security at their centers, but any vulnerability could lead to a disastrous outcome.

Multiple break-ins in 2009, 2011, and 2012 resulted in several arrests and jeopardized classified NASA information. These attacks have JPL and NASA officials on high alert, and while they are actively working on fixing the problems, the system as a whole is still extremely vulnerable. One significant software glitch or one really successful hack could shut down the entire system, potentially causing a multi-billion-dollar disaster. And while some of these issues, as the report states, are fixable by simply being more careful — using a 12-digit password rather than 8, for example — others are due to the age of the system. Many of the components for the DSN are as old as the network itself, 54 years old and counting.

***

When Richard Stephenson interviewed for a job at the Deep Space Network, he was warned up front about the kangaroos. The road to the center in Canberra winds through the Tidbinbilla Valley, a quiet alcove surrounded by velvety green hills. It has the charms of a picturesque Australian landscape, but hidden within this verdant oasis are monoliths of steel. White round antennas litter the landscape, while the fauna of Australia meander around the 20-story-high pedestals. A white metal sign hangs at the entrance gate asking all visitors to turn off their cell phones, laptops, and anything else that emits radio waves, so that they can “help listen to whispers from space.”

Just out of college, Stephenson planned to be a radio operator for the British Merchant Navy, but after a lecturer in one of his classes asked if anyone wanted to work for NASA in Australia, he jumped at the chance and ended up working for the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex as a 20-year-old. Little did he know that he would be navigating ships of a different kind. It was early 1988, and he was hired specifically to help Voyager 2 during its final and most challenging planetary encounter yet: the Neptune flyby. It would take two years for Stephenson to train to be a DSN link controller, leading up to the five most intense days of his life to date — the final hurrah for the Voyager mission.

For events like this, distance is the enemy of a DSN operator. Voyager 2 would be the farthest from Earth it had ever been, and it was becoming almost impossible to talk to. For a planetary encounter, everything has to work perfectly. The spacecraft has to fly by just the right spot. It has to have its antenna turned exactly toward Earth, and its cameras and scientific instruments have to work. The only way to make sure all of this is happening is by talking through the antennas of the DSN. For the Neptune flyby, the stakes were so high that the Deep Space Network alone wasn’t going to cut it. They had only one chance to visit Neptune, so scientists and mission engineers wanted to get as much data down as possible. Because of the extreme 2.7 billion mile distance between Earth and the eighth planet, the bandwidth had to be increased. Not only were all the DSN dishes around the world on duty those five days, but the Parkes Radio telescope in Australia, all 27 of the Very Large Array dishes in New Mexico, and the 64-meter Usuda dish in Japan all pointed their antennas at once toward Voyager 2. As it approached Neptune, the entire world was trying desperately to talk to the spacecraft — and to listen for an answer.

When the day finally arrived, Stephenson’s job was to turn the knob to marry the signal from the Parkes Radio telescope and the dishes at the DSN. “I can still remember standing there munching on a sandwich because we couldn’t leave our consoles. … It was like an adrenaline rush.” And their efforts worked. For the first time in human history, the world saw images of Neptune. It was an ultramarine blue sphere featuring a large, dark, oval-shaped storm, appearing almost like a passageway into the planet. At the end of those five days, Voyager 2 would begin its journey out of the solar system. Today it continues to travel quietly into deep space, constantly sending back tones from 11 billion miles away — tones we only hear when we turn a dish to listen.

Stephenson’s hands have been on every deep space mission launched from Earth since 1988. He has seen rovers try and fail to land on Mars, and other spacecraft try to enter into orbit, never to be heard from again. He’s also seen the DSN blossom from an array of antennas built for 1970s exploration, grow to become the most powerful deep space communication system in the world. Dishes have been upgraded. Some have been decommissioned, scrapped, and replaced.

After 54 years of constant operation, the Deep Space Network is worn out.

Stephenson has also seen the DSN fight for funding year after year. “There’s never enough money,” he says. “But over the last ten years, when you have a budget and halfway through the year it’s cut, and then it’s cut again before the end of that financial year. Then you’re told that the budget you have for next year is going be cut as well. It makes it very hard.”

The people who work around the world in Madrid, Canberra, and Goldstone, do not work nine-to-five shifts or take lunches promptly at noon. Spacecraft call in at all times of the day and night. Sometimes the alignment between Earth and Mars is best for a 4 a.m. uplink. Having teams of people working odd hours and employees stationed at three centers around the world can be expensive. To account for the mandatory budget cuts, changes in DSN operations were initiated in November 2017 with a program called “Follow the Sun.” Instead of each DSN center running their own dishes whenever the spacecraft aligned with their antennas, one team of operators will run all DSN dishes during its daytime hours. “As we go home at night, we’ll be handing over to Madrid, and then Madrid will be handing over to Goldstone. So for the first time ever, we’ll all be dabbling with each other’s antennas,” Stephenson explains. “That’s quite a paradigm shift for the DSN.”

This new shift system cuts down on how many staff members are working at once, and should account for millions in dollars in savings for the DSN portion of the budget. But this is not a longterm solution, and this system only works when there are no big events happening.

Eventually, as we stretch our arms out even farther into space, sending humans back to the moon or to Mars, the ability to send video will be required, as well as higher-resolution data. As it stands now, the bandwidth on the dishes will max out for those requirements. As an alternative, NASA engineers are looking to optical communication using lasers to carry more bits of data at a higher rate. And they need to do to it quickly. Each spacecraft that is selected and funded is designed in part based on the DSN’s ability to send and receive certain kinds of information. Antennas and scientific components are chosen in tandem with the rates and availability of the dishes. Just next year, the DSN is slated to begin communication for NASA’s Orion EM (Exploration Mission) test flight around the moon. Soon the DSN will begin splitting its time between communication with human missions and the armada of robots already in flight.

You can talk to anyone from any NASA department anywhere, and they will tell you the same thing: There is not enough money. Badri Younes, the deputy associate administrator of SCaN at NASA’s Headquarters, is one of the people who decide where the money goes. “When you are operating with a budget that’s flat, no one can get everything they want. You have to reconcile based on priority. … In terms of maintenance, we may take some risk instead of replacing a piece.”

But the centers aren’t fighting over $100 million dollars. “Sometimes we’re fighting over 2 or 3 million dollars, or $10,000,” says Stephenson. The budget cuts are having a real effect on daily operations. The department even bought antenna parts on eBay, as some of them are now obsolete. “We’re starting to lose expertise,” Stephenson added. “There are whole networks of people who are starting to retire. Our recovery times now are being impacted as well. Missions are seeing a direct link between the underfunded resources of the network and the data that’s being delivered to them”— the data that’s required for the success of any space mission.

***

Data is just another word for “information”, but when I think about what the data really is in this case, it takes on a new meaning. Each bit of information that is sent back to Earth helps us understand more about other planets or their moons, which in turn informs us about our own existence. It’s hard to imagine how data can be romantic, but when transmitted by the Deep Space Network, it represents answers to some of life’s biggest questions. Why is one planet solid and another gaseous? Why is Earth the way it is and not like Venus? How do we fit into the universe’s grander scheme?

After the power is restored in Mission Control, and the operators are getting everything back online, I walk down the dark hallway to a freight elevator. Jim Chu, the Data Center manager at JPL, is taking me to the first of several new server rooms, the place where the DSN’s data lives.

The budget cuts are having a real effect on daily operations. The department even bought antenna parts on eBay, as some of them are now obsolete.

The doors open to braided ropes of caution tape and construction workers. “Pardon our mess,” someone says, tipping their hard hat like a cowboy. As we walk through the dusty halls, there are rooms as big as houses with missing walls. Workers are putting up drywall, and dozens of people are hammering and drilling, building the entire floor from scratch.

Chu warns me it’s going to be loud inside the Data Center, thanks to the cooling system. He grabs the security badge tethered to his belt and swipes it across the sensor. He yanks open the thick black fire door, and we’re hit with an almost-deafening white noise from the machines. We instantly have to yell if we want to talk to each other. The walls are a soothing white to match the rows of white server racks, which look a bit like lockers. It even smells new, or what I imagine a newly minted server room to smell like, barely used plastic and fresh paint. Each section is about 10 feet tall and 20 feet long, separated into areas that each represent a group of spacecraft.

Chu walks me straight to a rack and gently opens the door. Red, blue, and white wires are neatly wound around each other, connections from the top trail down to below. It looks like a stomach sliced open with innards spilling out. These lockers are the guts of the Deep Space Network. We walk around the room, and he opens locker after locker and points: “This entire row is all Earth science.” One row is devoted just to an Earth satellite called SMAP that measures moisture in the soil.

(Shannon Stirone)

I really want to see Voyager, but Chu informs me the Voyager data has always been held off-site, just a mile from JPL at a place called Woodbury. When this floor is completed, all the Voyager data will be moved here and the entire DSN system will finally be housed under one roof. I ask Chu about the other spacecraft’s data sets as if they were celebrities. Where’s Cassini? Where’s Curiosity? Where’s Juno? He walks to a row toward the very back of the room, opens a single locker, and points to a dozen neatly stacked 3-terabyte hard drives at the bottom. “That’s part of Mars and Juno” — a spacecraft currently in orbit around Jupiter. Two DVD player–sized stacks of hard drives house data for some of the biggest space missions we’ve ever launched. Unlike the Earth missions, these deep space missions don’t require a lot of room for storage because it takes so long to get the data in the first place. Their bit rates are small. They trickle in slowly because of their distance from Earth, and as a result they require less square footage.

Before we leave, we stop and stare at the rows of new white lockers and listen to the soothing hum of the cooling system. All I can see in my head are the shiny, grooved rings of Saturn, the swirls of Jupiter’s red spot, grains of dust on Mars, the heart of Pluto, the haze of Venus. It was all here, in the noisy confines of a light, bright room so unlike the dark quietude of space.

***

The Deep Space Network sees the beginnings of things, and keeps an ear to the long, hushed middle; only rarely does it see the end. It’s the listeners whose time is fleeting.

When the twin Voyager spacecraft departed Earth in the summer of 1977, they were destined to embark on the most epic journey any mission had ever attempted, a distinction they still hold 41 years later. Not only would they visit every planet and take the first pictures of Uranus and Neptune, but they would also both pierce through the boundary of plasma from the Sun that envelopes our solar system. Their goal was to leave us forever.

Suzy Dodd was just 23 when she joined the Voyager team, two years before the Uranus flyby in 1984, three years before Richard started at Canberra, and four years before Voyager would skim past Neptune. She’s currently both the project manager on Voyager and also the director for the Interplanetary Network, a directorate at JPL that manages the DSN. Images of the Spitzer Space Telescope, Voyager, and Neptune cover the walls of her office, along with awards of just about every kind NASA offers. While she began her work on the team for the Uranus encounter, she’s quick to say that it was the final Voyager flyby that was the most special to her.

The Neptune visit was the denouement of Voyager’s long story. Sure it would continue out into the depths of the solar system, sending back science data, but after Neptune there would be no more photos, just darkness. “It was really special,” says Dodd, with a warm expression. “It was also the realization that wow, we’re done.”

September 14, 2017, was the day before Cassini was scheduled to deorbit, enter Saturn’s atmosphere, and burn up — twenty years after its launch. I was among the few members of the press allowed into the Center of the Universe for a tour. We didn’t know we’d soon bear witness to a real-time downlink from the spacecraft. The red dsn track in progress sign was placed atop the ACE’s desk. Cassini was calling home.

This conversation happened suddenly, and the human chatter became hushed as soon as the Cassini ACE’s phone rang. It was a call from the center in Goldstone. They were checking the connection. After all, this was close to the end. For a moment, the spacecraft dropped out of lock. The clasped fingers slipped, and they were attempting to reconnect. I stood behind the ACE’s chair, just inches from him, and watched his computer screens quickly fill with lines of jumbled numbers and letters. Hidden within this code were images and updates from the spacecraft — it was okay, Cassini was still on a collision course with the planet.

The Deep Space Network sees the beginnings of things, and keeps an ear to the long, hushed middle; only rarely does it see the end.

I looked up to the monitors that months earlier were blank. Now they were filled with working antennas and the spacecraft they were talking to. The countdown clock to Cassini indicated the end of mission was near: T-0 14:06:20.x

The next morning, hundreds of people awoke before dawn to head back to JPL, where together we would witness the end of Cassini. The only way we could know it was over was by listening via the Deep Space Network. We sat in silence in those last few minutes. We knew it would be sometime around 5 a.m. but there was no telling how long the spacecraft would survive before we lost it. The center in Canberra would be the last to talk to Cassini; they had their biggest ears listening with Dish #43. The screens at JPL displayed the radio downlink information. This is what they were watching in Canberra. We were connected to Cassini via two radio connections on an X-Band and an S-band. These movements look like any EKG or heart monitor. You can almost hear the rhythms coming all the way from Saturn: ba-bump-ba-bump-ba-bump. There were peaks and drops. We still had it! Ba-bump-ba-bump-ba-bump. No one blinked, and then suddenly at 4:55 a.m. PST, the heartbeats from the S-band fell flat.

Mission Control: I call loss of signal at 11:55:46 for the S-band. So that would be the end of the spacecraft.

Cassini Project Manager: Copy that. There may be a trickle of telemetry left, but you just heard the signal from the spacecraft is gone and in the next 45 seconds so will be the spacecraft.  

I hope you’re all deeply proud of this amazing accomplishment. Congratulations to you all. This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you’re all an incredible team. I’m going to call the End of Mission. Project manager, off the net.

In that moment, I thought of something Richard Stephenson had said, speaking with a colleague about the upcoming death of Cassini. “He said, ‘We’ll be with you till your last bit,’ and I felt myself getting all teary. I suppose we always stamp human emotion on these things.”

***

In 1899, Nikola Tesla wrote a treatise called “Talking with the Planets,” and his visions are indiscernible from what’s come to pass.

At the present stage of progress, there would be no insurmountable obstacle in construction of a machine capable of conveying a message to Mars, nor would there be any great difficulty in recording signals transmitted to us by the inhabitants of that planet, if they be skilled electricians, communication once established, even in the simplest way, by a mere interchange of numbers, the progress towards more intelligible communication would be rapid. Absolute certitude as to the receipt and interchange of messages would be reached soon as we could respond with the number four, say in reply to the signal one two and three. The Martians or the inhabitants of whatever planet had signaled to us would understand at once that we had caught their message across the gulf of space and had sent back a response. What a tremendous stir this would make in the world! How soon will it come?

While we have yet to find intelligent civilizations wandering around our cosmic neighborhood, there is in fact intelligent life in the universe — we put it there.

Voyager 1 has already departed the solar system. For the past five years it’s been sailing between our star and another, and every day it still calls home. One day it will stop calling. For years the team has been slowly turning off instruments on both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in order to preserve the most important feature — the communication link. Suzy Dodd thinks the spacecraft have several years left. There’s no way to know for sure what Voyager’s final call will be. “You don’t exactly know when you get to say goodbye.” she tells me. “So every day you should say goodbye.”

Before leaving JPL, I stop in the quad for a moment to take in the Pasadena sunshine and open my phone to bring up the DSN NOW website. It takes a moment to load, and then suddenly there was Voyager sending us whispers, in squiggly lines and solid lines, telemetry, data, tones, heartbeats. We were talking again.

As you read this, there are men and women at the DSN stations checking links, turning dishes, and talking to space. Some might be eating a sandwich at their console, watching the jagged lines disappear as a connection between Earth and deep space temporarily severs and is filled again with the black silence of the cosmos. It is likely the Deep Space Network will forever remain the silent partner of the space program, but no doubt its heart will continue to beat, its dishes will sway to meet the rise of a spacecraft over the horizon, its operators will bring its radio waves together, and its explorers will turn their faces to Earth and say hello.

***

Shannon Stirone is a freelance writer based in California focused on NASA, space policy, and space exploration. Her work has appeared in Popular ScienceThe Atlantic, The New Republic, and elsewhere. 

***

Editor: Michelle Legro
Fact checker: Ethan Chiel
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

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