History & Archives

JPL grew up with the Space Age and helped bring it into being. It is a place where science, technology, and engineering intermix in unique ways: to produce iconic robotic space explorers sent to every corner of the solar system, to peer deep into the Milky Way galaxy and beyond, and to keep a watchful eye on our home planet. Analyzing the data pouring back from these machine emissaries, scientists around the world continue to discover how the universe, the solar system, and life formed and evolved.

The Early Years
JPL's beginnings can be traced to the mid-1930s, when a few Caltech students and amateur rocket enthusiasts started tinkering with rockets. After an unintended explosion occurred on campus, the group and its experiments relocated to an isolated area next to the San Gabriel Mountains, the present-day site of JPL. In the following decade, as an anxious country sought to respond to the menacing challenge of German V-2 rockets, the fledgling Jet Propulsion Laboratory (officially named in 1944, some 14 years before NASA was formed) was sponsored by the U.S. Army to develop rocket technology and the Corporal and Sergeant missile systems.

Becoming Part of the NASA Family
The early years of space exploration were fueled by the Cold War. The Soviet Union won the first round in October 1957 by placing Sputnik into Earth orbit. The "beep-beep" sound transmitted by the satellite was nervously heard around the free world, and pressure mounted for the United States to respond. In less than three months, JPL had built
Explorer 1, launched in January 1958 to become America's first satellite. Even this first spacecraft made an important scientific discovery: it detected what would become known as the Van Allen radiation belts encircling Earth, named after James Van Allen, the scientist who designed the main instrument on Explorer 1. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded in October 1958, and JPL was transferred from the Army to the new agency. The transition from the Army to NASA also marked another change. The Laboratory began to turn its attention from the rockets themselves to the payloads they would carry. Developing these payloads - scientific spacecraft - would become the new focus and place JPL at the center of the Space Race with the Soviet Union. Even though the Laboratory's charter had completely evolved away from rockets and jets, "Jet Propulsion Laboratory" had become the official name and was retained. Another defining moment for America in space came in 1962, when the JPL-built Mariner 2 flew past Venus to become the world's first spacecraft to successfully encounter another planet. Thus commenced a long series of "first ever" accomplishments by JPL that helped define history's first five decades of space exploration. JPL has a unique position within the NASA family. Ever since its transfer to NASA, JPL has been structured as an FFRDC(Federally Funded Research and Development Center) dedicated to the robotic exploration of space. The Laboratory is NASA's only FFRDC and works alongside NASA's nine field centers. However, unlike those centers, which are staffed by government civil servants, JPL is managed for NASA by Caltech under a contractual arrangement begun in 1958 and renewed every five years. Thus, JPLers are Caltech employees.

Era of Large Space Missions
In the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, NASA focused JPL's expertise on large, complex, one-of-a-kind space missions. This era produced the Voyagers to the outer planets, the Vikings to Mars (in partnership with NASA's Langley Research Center), the Galileo mission to the Jupiter system (in partnership with NASA's Ames Research Center), and Cassini-Huygens to the Saturn system (in partnership with the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency). These legendary spacecraft extended humanity's senses throughout the solar system, letting us examine the planets and moons up close.

How Mariner 2 led the world to the planets
After five years of playing catch-up to the Soviet Union in space exploration, the United States has achieved its first bona fide "first" - the first successful flyby of another planet.
xView the 50th anniversary of planetary exploration interactive infographic

Explorer I
Take a step back in time and follow the historic story of how the United States responded to Sputnik, the world's first Earth-orbiting satellite launched by the Soviets in 1957. JPL designed and built -- and, in cooperation with the Army, launched -- Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite and the first spacecraft ever to return scientific data from space.
xPDF of the Explorer I story
xText Version

History of JPL
This site begins with JPL's early years in the 1930s and recounts the major historical moments for the Lab.

JPL 101 (PDF 9.7Mb)
This online book provides an in-depth overview of JPL's history.

40 Years of Exploration
A timeline that covers forty years of space exploration, beginning with the first spacecraft to fly past another planet. (1962 - 2002)

JPL Library
Resources for teachers

In 1936 a team of Caltech students and researchers began rocket experiments at a rugged site that grew to become JPL At the origin: In 1936 a team of Caltech students and researchers began rocket experiments at a rugged site that grew to become JPL.
  • Earth

    A look at our home planet

    Three Earth missions launching in 2014 will take a closer look at our home planet to study various processes and their link to climate change. The Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, spacecraft will measure soil moisture from space. ISS-RapidScat will measure ocean winds from its perch aboard the International Space Station and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, will study carbon dioxide from space.

  • Dawn  mission to Vesta and Ceres

    Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres

    Having finished its exploration of Vesta in September 2012, capturing stunning views of the giant asteroid’s surface, Dawn is currently on its way to its second destination, Ceres. Dawn is the first spacecraft designed to orbit two different bodies after leaving Earth, a feat enabled by its ion thrusters, which are much more efficient than a typical spacecraft engine.

  • Juno mission to Jupiter

    Juno mission to Jupiter

    The Juno spacecraft, on target for a 2016 arrival at Jupiter, is designed to study the gas giant to better understand its origins and evolution, . Because of its mass, Jupiter still holds much of its original composition. By peering beneath Jupiter’s thick cloud cover and investigating its core, intense magnetic field, auroras and atmospheric composition, scientists hope to collect important clues about the formation of the solar system.

  • Voyager 1 in interstellar space

    Voyager 1 in interstellar space

    Launched in 1977 – shortly after its twin, Voyager 2 – the Voyager 1 spacecraft has spent more than 35 years journeying through the solar system. It surpassed Pioneer 10 in 1998 to become the most distant human-made object. And in August 2012 it became the first spacecraft to reach interstellar space, a newly defined region of the solar system described as “the space between stars.”

  • Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover

    Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover

    After a nail-biting landing on Mars in August 2012, Curiosity, the largest and most technologically advanced rover yet, got straight to the goal at hand: searching for signs that the Red Planet could have once supported life. Not even a year later, an analysis of a rock sample collected by the rover showed that ancient Mars could have, in fact, supported living microbes. The mission, which is designed to operate until the summer of 2014, is currently continuing its exploration of Mars.

  • NuSTAR x-ray telescope

    NuSTAR x-ray telescope

    Since the mission’s first light in June 2012, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has begun sussing out black holes, supernova explosions and active galaxies using a first-of-its-kind telescope capable of focusing the highest-energy X-ray light into detailed pictures. The observations could help astronomers crack unsolved mysteries about black holes.

  • Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif.

    Deep Space Network

    Serving as the world’s premier spacecraft communications and navigation system for more than 50 years, the Deep Space Network, or DSN, consists of giant antennas stationed at 120-degree intervals around the world – in Goldstone, Calif., Madrid and Canberra, Australia. The network’s 230-foot (70-meter) antennas are capable of interpreting even the tiniest spacecraft signals from billions of miles away. The network also works as a science instrument in its own right by using radio signals to study the composition of planets and track the trajectories of near-Earth objects like asteroids and comets.

  • Nanotechnology research to help diagnose and treat brain tumors

    Nanotechnology research to help diagnose and treat brain tumors

    Technologies originally developed for space missions often find their way to Earth to improve the quality of day-to-day life. As one example, JPL researchers have partnered with the City of Hope to explore the potential of carbon nanotubes -- used in various space applications to help produce electrons -- to diagnose and treat brain tumors. Initial studies on mice have shown that the tubes are an effective and non-toxic means of transporting cancer-fighting agents to the brain.

  • Aerial view of JPL's main facility near Los Angeles

    Aerial view of JPL's main facility near Los Angeles

    About twice the size of California's Disneyland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a 177-building campus situated in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. In addition to a mission control center and 9,600 square-foot clean room, the lab is home to a simulated Mars landscape called the Mars Yard, as well as a 25-foot space simulator.

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