The Jet Propulsion Lab Is Way Weirder (and Awesomer) Than You Even Imagined

By Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg

For a center of cutting-edge scientific research, Caltech's Jet Propulsion Lab seems to be a pretty wacky place. Luke Johnson, a graphic designer at the lab, set out to explore and map the campus on a dare, which became a much more ambitious project than he expected. He documents his journey through photos and GPS data in the video below, describing some of his discoveries. The final product of his adventure is a beautifully designed map for JPL employees, revealing the hidden treasures and potential hazards all around them. He describes what's in store for the project in an interview below.

The Atlantic: How did you end up at JPL? What do you do there?

Luke Johnson: A friend from graduate school was working at JPL and left to finish his thesis. He suggested I apply for his position -- which was essentially assisting Dan Goods, the Lab's Visual Strategist. Specifically, my work ranged from designing presentations to serving as a communications consultant on large-budget mission proposals. 

Dan was the one who dared me to walk to every building on Lab in numerical order. The Mysteries and Curiosities Map, and subsequent video, were personal projects born from this challenge that have been supported and funded by the Director's Office and HR.

To be honest, while most designers would kill for this job, I almost didn't apply because I wasn't really that "into space." At the same time, I think this critical distance helped shape my perception and work on Lab. 

You conducted this experiment two years ago. What was the process of getting the video out into the world? 

At its core, I think the project builds on a familiar narrative: man is offered a challenge, man finishes the challenge at a cost (sunburn/bum left knee) but learns something about himself. From this perspective, I believe I was able to pitch a project about the value of the Lab's culture in an honest way. 

At the same time, a project like this doesn't get funded unless it is supported at a variety of levels. Luckily, I had an opportunity to present the idea to Dr. Elachi, the Lab's Director, who was interested in developing walking tours on Lab. I think it's easy to pay to lip service to an institution's culture but it's another thing to actually invest in it. Both the Director's Office and HR have been instrumental in supporting this passion project.

What was the response to the video and the map at JPL?

A few weeks ago we unofficially launched the map and video to a standing-room only audience. Afterwards, a gentleman told me that he always had difficulty explaining to his family and friends his experience working on Lab -- and this project captured the spirit of the Lab in a way that resonated with him. For me, this affirms that the project is headed in the right direction. 

JPL has stepped into the media spotlight recently, thanks to the success of the Curiosity mission, spawning memes like "Mohawk Guy" (Bobak Ferdowsi) and @SarcasticRover. John Hudson at the Wire called NASA the government's "one true viral hit factory." Do you see a growing role for creative media in/about space exploration?

Absolutely. Dan Goods and Alexander Smith, both collaborators on the project, are examples of designers working on Lab pushing creative media. This project has also allowed me to work closely with designers outside the Lab such as Erin Ellis, Christiane Holzheid, Julia Tsao, and David Mikula -- all designers who are savvy about the role of creative media. 

While I like to think that my personal project may have been a compelling reason to collaborate, it was the opportunity to work on a project associated with JPL that really got them involved. And that speaks to the power of the Lab's brand -- something that NASA should leverage even more. People want to design here because the content is captivating. 

Most importantly, are the robotic deer for real?

JPL sits on the edge of the Angeles National Forest so we see a lot of deer on Lab. For whatever reason, when people visit they see and learn about all these fantastic things on Lab but always remember the deer. Maybe it's human instinct or maybe it's because the deer look so real. 

What next for you?

We are currently translating the map into a smartphone application with the tagline "Find Curiosities, Create Your Own." Basically, the app works as a scavenger hunt using QR codes for the existing Curiosities (Points of Interests on the physical map) while allowing users to submit their own contributions. 

Once the app is complete, we will do an official launch of both the map and the app simultaneously. The map and app are currently internal-only projects, but I believe they would appeal to a larger audience so finding a way to make them accessible is important to me. 

After that, I want to build a Purple Rocketship, which is essentially a metaphor for a space-themed recording booth. Similar to NPR's Storycorps, the rocketship would be a place on Lab where anyone can record their daily experience of working at JPL. Many of the Lab's pioneers from the '60's and '70's are starting to retire and it would be a shame to lose their institutional knowledge. At the same time, I think it is valuable that the recording booth is accessible to all the Lab's employees. No matter where we are employed there is still the challenge of getting up and going to work every day. I think those idiosyncratic stories, especially at a place like JPL, are important to document and share. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/09/the-jet-propulsion-lab-is-way-weirder-and-awesomer-than-you-even-imagined/261685/