History of JPL presented

Erik Conway, historian at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, gave an overview of the organization at Monday night's presentation hosted by the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Photo by Shana LiVIGNI

By Shana LiVIGNI

On Monday, the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley hosted an in-depth look at JPL’s history featuring guest speaker Erik Conway. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, still managed by Caltech, is located in part on the eastern edge of La Cañada-Flintridge, and with over 4,000 employees is the valley’s largest employer.
“JPL is such a large part of our local history here and it’s one of the few big pieces of history we have that everybody remembers,” explained Mike Lawler, president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. “We all remember the moon shot, the Surveyor missions and such. I’ve been trying for years to get somebody from JPL to come out and do a talk and I finally found Erik who’s been doing a lot of work documenting aerospace history.”
Conway is the historian at JPL. His duties include research and writing, conducting oral histories, and contributing to the lab’s historical collections. Before JPL, he worked as a contract historian at Langley Research Center. Conway enjoys studying the historical interaction between national politics, scientific research, and technological change. He and his projectionist presented a thorough historical look at the JPL phenomenon through slides and narration.
JPL’s roots go back to the ‘30s when a group of Caltech students, dubbed the Suicide Squad, were using the vacant land of the Arroyo Seco next to La Cañada to experiment with rockets. That group of daring students would change history. Their experiments with solid-fuel rockets became instrumental in the United States victory winning World War II. America officially entered the Space Age in 1958 with the launch of JPL’s Explorer I. Since then, JPL has led the world in exploring the solar system with such satellites as: Mariner, Viking, Magellan, Voyager, Galileo, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Odyssey, and more recently the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.