Andrew Crawford with Dr. Charles Elachi at JPL

Beep-beep ... incoming transmission.

As I sit in the Deep Space Network's Telecommunications Laboratory, writing this special broadcast, the relativity and reality of this transmission takes precedence. Today I sat down with the director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Charles Elachi, on a search to see what drives JPL's spirit of exploration.

For a quick debriefing to bring you up to speed, space exploration has a certain magic and aura about it that's had an influence on me for a long time. First, from following the missions to Mars, and then with my engineering schooling, where I've paid much more attention to what JPL does and how it completely inspires me. When my phone rang one day in Montana and I was invited to come be a part of this workforce, it was a dream come true.

When I first arrived here, not only was the magic of this place confirmed, but it was also exponentially skyrocketing by the minute, so much so that it made me want to try my hardest, work my best and literally shoot for the stars. So I thought why not request an interview with my inspiration and the reason JPL is what it is today, the lab's director, Dr. Elachi.

Access: Granted.

As my mentor Jason Carlton and I step out of the elevator, the first thing that strikes our attention is the huge windows with a scene that stops us in our tracks: an aerial view looking down at the buildings that comprise the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. As we make our way down the hallway, I can't help but gaze at a huge picture from the surface of Mars with rover tracks disappearing into the distance, which seems to embody JPL's mission of exploration.

When the door to Dr. Elachi's office swings open, the director walks over to me quickly, shakes my hand with a smile, and says, "Andrew, come in, come in." Soon enough, we're seated at a large table in the middle of the room, and across the table looking at me, with eyes that have witnessed so much, is Dr. Elachi.

Andrew interviews Dr. Elachi
I catch a glimpse of Dr. Elachi's unflinching enthusiasm as he responds to my query about the aura that JPL seems to exude, the same aura that attracted me to this place. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of the driving factors that JPL seems to employ is giving scientists and engineers a certain autonomy, the freedom to tinker, think, imagine and then create. I see it every day, whether it's the engineers in my Deep Space Network Antenna Mechanical Group hashing out ideas on a white board or conversations in the lunchroom of creative ideas. This seems fundamental to life at JPL, and I soon learn that Dr. Elachi feels the same way. "You probably know a lot more about mechanical engineering than I do," he says. "I have to rely on the experts and talent we bring in to make these advances."

He recalls that his "first tinkering as a boy was taking apart our family's handheld radio to see how it worked. I was never able to put it back together," he says. I laugh with a tremendous smile, not only because his story parallels the curiosity that JPLers seem to have, but also because my father would constantly ask me as a boy why I was so good at taking things apart, yet never putting them back together. Glad I'm not the only one.

My mentor Jason Carlton, a mechanical engineer who graduated from Cal Poly Pomona, chimes in on the subject of tinkering, saying he's concerned about students having enough hands-on experiences in school. Dr. Elachi and I could not agree more on the importance of this kind of education.

"It's really an investment in the future. The more we can tell leaders that's what got us here, the better off we'll be. I've always said that when things are tough, it's time to invest in your future because that's how you get out of tough times. If you look at history, the people who invested in technology were the ones who succeeded."

We all take a second to reflect on this point and silently nod in agreement at the need to convey the importance of this kind of education in the future. I decide to take the opportunity to ask a question that has always piqued my interest: What is it about JPL that attracts such scientific, engineering and research talent from around the world?

"There are two things," he says. "First, is the kind of work we do, where you can come here and be working on exploring the universe. Second, is the talent that comes here with the mindset that anything is possible. There are places that humans currently cannot go, and we get to explore those places. A new-hire once said to me, 'At JPL, we get together in the morning and talk about what's impossible and then do it in the afternoon.'"

This statement resonates with me profoundly, knowing that my internship and job this summer, with the Deep Space Network's Antenna Mechanical Group, are directly connected and responsible for the exploration of places we have not yet charted or visited.

As our time draws to a close, I ask him one final question: "Who is the first person you would call if one of JPL's missions finds evidence of life on Mars or beyond? Is there a special 'red-phone' hotline for that?"

There are laughs and smiles all around the table, and then a moment of silence while he pauses and thinks. He says there's no "red-phone" hotline. In all seriousness, he would call NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who would then call the White House. This statement causes a few goosebumps to rise on my neck as I consider the magnitude of calling the White House and the conversation that would follow. The interview comes to a close, and I can't help but smile and say thank you as I shake Dr. Elachi's hand. He opens the door, smiles and says thank you in return. And as he begins his next meeting of the day, what I'm sure is one of many, the generosity of his time truly becomes apparent.

I find myself strolling back to the office with the excitement and wonderment reminiscent of when I was a little boy dreaming of space, yet this time with a newfound and non-diminishing source of inspiration. Knowing that I get to be part of something special - and am microscopically responsible for structures monitoring that big night sky -- is enough to keep me fueled for eternity.

TAGS: Charles Elachi, Deep Space Network

  • Andrew Crawford