I love SPACE. I love science and stars and nebula. Contemplating the universe is about as close to the divine as I can imagine. I’ve been into science fiction since my teens. I read Le Guin, Bradbury, Asimov. Movies like Aliens and Contact have been part of my staple diet along with Star Trek, the early Star Wars, Galactica, Dr Who, Firefly, The Man from Earth, and Arrival.
Then in April 2018 I found myself sitting in the lobby at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, about to deliver a workshop on storytelling to scientists. I was discreetly taking pictures of the gorgeous 1950s mosaic tile reception desk, while trying to remember to stay inside my body.
Two years earlier I had had a long conversation with a very animated and enthusiastic woman about storytelling in science. Her name: Alice Wessen. I had just performed my show UniVerse about where science and story meet. Alice had just heard about it. Alice is ebullient, her passion for her work is plain to see. We ranted and raged together – “We need to tell better stories of space and science! We need to engage the wider world more! We need stories that celebrate this deep mysterious journey that humankind is taking” It was one of those conversations. Two years later she invited me to JPL to teach storytelling to her Public Engagement Team.
Working with the team was a real eye opener. They do everything from press releases to twitter to talking about Space for 8 hours straight on public engagement days. Everyone has a different speciality. During our workshop there were depictions of Cassini’s final mission alongside lyrical descriptions of exoplanets. It was so gorgeous; here were my people, obsessed with space and living their dreams of it.
Video from : inside the belly of JPL
I’ll be honest, standing at Mission Control on the third day, having just been given a tour of the grounds of JPL I was having trouble concentrating on what my friend/tour guide Randii Wessen was saying. Because I was staring at the darkened room thinking of all the movies I had seen set in that room! From where I stood I could watch information cascading down from satellites. Beneath my feet was a plaque sunken into the floor that reads Dare Mighty Things; one of the best phrases I have ever heard. There were just hours to go before I was to perform my show “UniVerse” to a bunch of quantum physicists, scientists, astronomers and space nerds. It was a lot to take in.
Later, with my heart in my throat, I stepped onto the stage. In a room full of space craft I performed my UniVerse show; a mad mix of myth, quantum physics, mathematics and turtles. At the end I took a bow to the 130 guests in my audience and to the models of Voyager and Cassini that stood tall, like benevolent guardians in the wings of the room.
During my time at JPL I saw space craft being built and tested, ideas for future projects, giant garage doors just for space craft, images from our solar system, models of Galileo + Curiosity + Voyager + Cassini, rockets, bits of moon, maps of space, the hearts of stars and so much more.
I was really struck by something at the end of my time there. I realised that every single person I had met or chatted with was madly passionate about what they do. And they’ll do it forever if they’re let. They all have this wild look in their eyes, as if by working at JPL they are getting away with the best trick they’ve ever pulled off in their lives. They work hard, and after work, over wine, they are still talking about the universe and all its’ mysteries as the stars wheel overhead.
It was a life highlight to be invited to your homeplace NASA JPL. Thank you to Alice, Preston, Liz, Randii and the team for such a wild few days of space, story and conversation.