When mechanical engineers accustomed to building one-of-a-kind spacecraft turn that focus to pumpkins, the results can be hauntingly good. The annual Halloween pumpkin-carving contest at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California may be all in good fun, but to the 200 or so participants, it’s also serious business. Power tools are involved.
Dioramas can incorporate flying-saucer gourds, guitar-strumming pumpkins, and squashes that bear a striking resemblance to celebrities or famous deep space missions. Participants carve them on their breaks – 60 minutes of frantic sawing and drilling that sends vegetable detritus flying on a patio at JPL. (This year, one team had a minute-by-minute spreadsheet to make sure they stayed on schedule.)
Carving complete, engineers race into two conference rooms in a nearby building to install the pumpkins into displays of up to 4 feet by 4 feet square. Non-pumpkin materials – motorized parts, lights, often elaborate props, and painted backdrops – can be prepared beforehand.
“It’s not really a pumpkin-carving contest in the traditional sense. It’s a pumpkin art installation event with very few rules,” said Peter Waydo, who manages JPL’s spacecraft mechanical engineering section and emcees the carving. He’s been participating since the event began in 2011. “This is something everybody looks forward to every year – it just lets their creative juices flow completely unrestricted from the rules and processes we’re normally bound by.”
For the 2023 event, more than two dozen teams produced displays. They ranged from a Barbenheimer-themed “atomic makeover” featuring a mirrored disco-ball pumpkin to a space octopus emerging from a Jupiter-colored pumpkin to greet NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft, and there were references to Taylor Swift, “Dune,” and the agency’s James Webb Space Telescope. All of the creations were on display for fellow engineers, scientists, technicians, and other JPL employees to admire.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a competition without winners. A panel of judges named the year’s top six, with three from each of the two sections of engineers that participate. A display re-creating favorite items from JPL’s museum and an interactive Indiana Jones-themed display both won first. Second went to the Deep Squash Network – a spoof on NASA’s Deep Space Network, which enables spacecraft to communicate with Earth – and to a creation involving a descendent of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter on the fictional planet Arrakis. The two third-place winners were an eyeball-pumpkin that resembled Las Vegas’ Sphere and the Barbenheimer display.
The event comes on a special day for the lab, which, founded Oct. 31, 1936, was celebrating its 87th birthday.
Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.