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Beyond The Sky
  • July 23, 2012 : 15:07
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JPL is the world’s leading designer of robotic spacecraft. Voyager 1 is a JPL craft, as are the flagship satellites of NASA’s Deep Space Network, a worldwide array of communication facilities that support our missions in space. Back in the 1930s, rocketry was considered beyond the fringe of respectable science, deemed impossible by a popular college textbook. Parsons, along with a high school buddy and a few grad students at Caltech, conducted launches just north of Pasadena in an isolated area called the Arroyo Seco. His team steadily improved the design and precision of rockets and helped the Allies win World War II. He eventually co-founded JPL and the rocket manufacturer Aerojet. Parsons also followed the teachings of British satanist Aleister Crowley. Under Crowley’s psychic guidance, Parsons lured men and women to jump nude over fire in his backyard. He thought sexual ecstasy lifted humans to higher planes of consciousness, recited pagan poetry and boasted of impregnating statuettes with his “vital force.” Parsons also believed in the interconnection of fiction and future reality. He attended science fiction discussions alongside Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard—founder of Scientology—before Hubbard moved into Parsons’s mansion and then ran away with his mistress. (After performing a ritual in the Mojave Desert, Hubbard and Parsons prophesied that a Faustian female messiah named Babalon would be born in nine months, a product of immaculate conception. Parsons went downhill soon after. He unloaded his Aerojet stock for about $11,000—it would have increased in value to the tens of millions—and died at the age of 37 while cooking explosives in a washbasin. A crater on the far side of the moon is named after him.)

Security is tight at JPL’s entrance. At the front gate, tanned armed guards in sunglasses examined my passport and waved me through. I had received clearance from the JPL’s media rep, Priscilla Vega. I met up with her in the lobby.

“I’ve arranged for you to speak with Matt Kenyon, one of our top CMB researchers,” Vega told me. She smiled and twirled her necklace. “Right now Dr. Kenyon is delivering a talk to his colleagues, so I thought I’d start you off on a tour with the Boy Scouts.”

Vega pointed outside, where a group of Scouts waited under a canopy. I hurried out of the lobby and got into single file. The tour guide snaked us around cacti, scrub plants and research buildings, all the way to the Theodore von Kármán Auditorium. We took our seats inside. A scale model of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter stood beside a stage.

“We study Mars for signs of life 24/7, 365 days a year,” the tour guide announced. “Any questions?”

A Boy Scout in the front row raised his hand. “This place is big,” he said.

“JPL stretches 177 acres. Stay together. If you need to use the restroom, tell a parent.”

The lights in the auditorium dimmed. A film came on, narrated by Harrison Ford, in which the clouds of Venus parted to reveal the planet’s spectacular surface. I recalled the story of Leonid Ksanfomaliti, a scientist who worked on Soviet missions in the 1970s and 1980s. Recently he claimed that old photographs of Venus reveal a disk and a scorpion-shape creature. The disk and scorpion changed locations from one photo to the next. “Let us boldly suggest,” Ksanfomaliti said, “that the objects’ morphological features would allow us to say they are living.” (NASA officials say the photos depict nothing more than the ejected lens caps of the landing craft, taken from different angles.)

After the film, I followed the Boy Scouts back outside. Our guide led us into the Space Flight Operations Facility—the mission control center for the Deep Space Network—where we gathered in the upstairs viewing room. The operations facility is a showcase for human exploration. Live tracking data from Juno, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Mars Odyssey and Cassini scrolled across the monitors. A satellite feed showed each spacecraft in flight.

“Are those people real?” one of the Boy Scouts asked, peering down at the mission controllers behind their computers.

The tour guide chuckled, but before too long the kid’s question might be plausible. “Any sufficiently advanced technology,” Arthur C. Clarke said, “is indistinguishable from magic.” Scientists are often the ones guilty of closed-mindedness. Back in 1894, future Nobel Prize winner Albert Michelson claimed all central laws of physics had been discovered. In 1928, Max Born, also an eventual Nobel laureate, said, “Physics, as we know it, will be over in six months.” Even Stephen Hawking wrote, in A Brief History of Time, that we “may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature.” If our smartest scientists often turn out to be mistaken, whom can we believe?

I drifted out of the viewing area and found Vega waiting to take me to the Microdevices Laboratory. In this lab alone, an estimated $375 million in JPL projects has been enabled. Kenyon, Vega told me, has built devices for many spacecraft—including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Climate Sounder. Something in her voice told me he wasn’t the average researcher.

We waited outside the conference room where Kenyon was finishing his presentation. Soon the door opened and a gaggle of young men spilled out. They had long pale arms and wore T-shirts tucked into their jeans.

A man with a laptop under his arm walked over to us. Tall, with a distracted, almost indifferent air, Kenyon had wisps of blond hair that floated above his head like tentacles. I asked him what the title of his talk had been.

“I don’t know.” Kenyon fumbled with his laptop. He finally got it open and scrolled down the page. “This one, maybe?”

He showed me the first slide of his PowerPoint presentation: thermopile detectors for primitive bodies. “That’s just a fancy way of saying we’re measuring radiation from various objects in outer space. Putting more pixels in the sky.”

He walked us to the door of his research facility and held it open. The building was a beehive. The Microdevices lab includes particle-free clean rooms, sub-Kelvin refrigerators and electron microscopes. A sign outside one of the rooms warned danger when red lights are flashing: toxic gas release. Kenyon stopped at a long glass partition. On the other side, workers in powder-blue hazmat suits carried silicon wafers.

“The origins of the solar system are locked in primitive bodies,” Kenyon said. “Asteroids, comets, small objects floating in our solar system. Now the origins of the universe can be found in the surface of last scattering—in particular, the sphere known as the CMB. When our infrared detectors are placed on a telescope in space, they capture the conditions of the universe right after the big bang.”

I stepped toward the glass and watched the technicians at work. One of the machines was the size of a small car. “Can you show it to me?” I asked.

“Show you what?”

“The CMB—what Stephen Hawking says is quantum gravity written across the sky.”

Kenyon’s hair tentacles floated toward me. “I can’t show you that.”

“Do the data from the CMB indicate if we’re alone in the universe? Or if there’s intelligent design? What about that sphere you mentioned—the surface of last scattering?”

Vega looked down at her shoes. Kenyon passed his eyes over me like a disappointed father. “Ideally, we’d launch a telescope with thousands of our detectors aboard, but there’s not enough money in NASA’s budget.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Do you want to grab lunch? We can go to the Athenaeum, where Beverly Hills Cop was filmed. We can have ahi salads among the high-society wives.”

We walked back across the JPL parking lot to his Lexus. In the car, I asked how he first became interested in physics. It began, he said, with an out-of-body experience. “I was sitting on the couch one night. I must have been 15. I looked up and saw myself on the wall. There I was, looking down on the person I thought was me, Matt Kenyon. After that, I realized consciousness was nonlocal.”

I buckled my seat belt as Kenyon whipped the Lexus around the strangely chaotic parking lot. Parallel lines were painted at odd angles, creating geometric puzzles. On the other side of a picket fence, a horse appeared. Its rider nodded hello and turned into a nearby equestrian center.

“Nonlocality is a quantum concept,” Kenyon said as we left the front gates. “Things are intrinsically interlocked, even if it appears they are separated in space. This could include alternate life-forms.”

“You mean alternate versions of people on Earth?”

“So far, the claims of aliens from outer space are not falsifiable. But there is plenty of research to support psychic phenomena, communications with disincarnate spirits. Nature is aware of our consciousness. She aligns us with these anomalies in such a way that we say, ‘Wow, there is more to life than what we see and feel.’

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read more: entertainment, culture, issue july 2012

4 comments

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Great stuff Rob Smith.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    So beautifully written. A poetic scientific, cosmic and philosophical journey.
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    I agree, the writing's very good. But what's next? Is there a follow up piece?
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    What, indeed, if you'd been an alien? Are they supposed to leave a message after the beep, or what? And how do we know you're not an alien spy, sent to confuse with your respectful, humorous, hopeful take on this question? A lovely read.
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