Jan, Visiting Mars
I found Mars in the Mojave Desert, just as I’d anticipated. It’s an actual place on the map; to get there I had to drive on what posted warning signs called an “ammo route” to get there, a little unnerving ( “Mars attacks?”). There were also “tank crossing,” “turtle crossing,” and “burro crossing” signs along the way.
Since the sixties this has been the place where giant radio telescopes send and receive transmissions to/from unmanned spacecraft traveling through all parts of the Solar System and beyond: Goldstone Deep Space Network, about an hour north of Barstow, a location chosen not only for its remoteness, but also for its mostly good air and the fact that it’s surrounded by mountains on all sides – so minimal signal interference from the rest of the world.
This place does seem incredibly remote – even from itself. You have to drive and drive to get from one radio telescope to another. At the Echo station, our first stop, we saw a wild burro wandering around underneath the giant dish, a common sight, I was told. Then on to the Apollo station, and finally to Mars, the largest of them all at 210 feet in diameter. It’s truly gigantic; standing underneath it and looking up, I felt very diminished indeed.
My super tour guide was Goldstone outreach director Karla Warner (she took the photo of me above), and she’d invited another employee, Marie Massey, to meet with me also, because Marie had been there since the seventies and was able to tell me a lot about the way things used to be.
When Mariner 9 made its trip to Mars in 1971, Fort Irwin was closed and security at Goldstone was less strict. The area was not fenced in as now, although there was a guard at the entrance gate and there were roving patrols. Reporters were not permitted to visit – they were sent to JPL instead.
Control rooms were staffed 24/7, with employees rotating shifts at task-specific work stations. I kept soup in my locker, Marie told me, because there was always a chance of being stranded here.
Before automation made things easier, radio telescopes had to be adjusted manually by someone who climbed up to the telescope itself. How’d they know the correct position? By consulting the Planetary Data book, finding the exact location of Mars (or any other planet), then entering this information into a computer that would interpolate progress and position of nearby spacecraft.
The precious transmissions from afar (radio signals in binary code) were sent three ways to JPL in Pasadena; courier, mail and teletype – a more efficient method, microwaving, became possible in 1978.
A lot of the old equipment is still there; although all the ancient computers have been updated, there’s still an occasional oscilloscope monitor. Employees use telephones, not webcams, to communicate, and many tasks are still written on forms attached to clipboards and mounted on a bulletin board.
It’s a throw-back kind of place, funky yet sophisticated, with a bit of a time-warp feeling. The radio telescopes there are still tracking spacecraft launched back in the seventies: Voyager 1 has left the solar system by now but is still transmitting, and Goldstone will continue to receive its increasingly faint signals far into the future.
You can see my Goldstone photos here.