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Welcome to the Center of the Universe

Illustration by Jacob Stead

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. Read more…