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For Parents : FAMILY OUTING : JPL Offers Guided Tour Through Outer Space


"Space . . . is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space." --Douglas Adams, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

Or to put it another way, it takes 30 years for a spacecraft traveling at 50,000 miles per hour to leave our solar system. And another 300,000 years to reach the nearest star.

"I love to look at the faces of the people as I tell them about it," said Kay Van Lepp, a public services representative at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.

One of Van Lepp's duties is giving tours of the facility, which is open to the public at irregular intervals.

"People can relate to time," Van Lepp said, and often to speed, but it is still hard for most people to relate to the immensity of the universe.

But that is part of Van Lepp's job. While scientists and engineers design and build the robotic spacecraft that explore our solar system, Van Lepp tries to help schoolchildren, senior citizens and everyone else understand what JPL does, and why it is important to them.

The tour begins with a multimedia presentation called "Welcome to Outer Space" in an auditorium that contains a life-size replica of a Voyager spacecraft, which is surprisingly small for something that has been crossing the solar system since 1977 and is still sending signals back to earth.

In the spacecraft museum in the next room is the much larger life-size model of Galileo, which currently is working its way toward Jupiter to study its moons. Launched from the space shuttle in October, 1989, it won't reach Jupiter until early December, 1995.

Next stop is the mission control center where Galileo, Voyagers I and II, and Magellan, which is mapping Venus, are monitored.

Van Lepp said that Magellan was supposed to work only two years, but it has been on the job four years now and is still working. Mission control even managed to change the craft's orbit so it can better scan the planet's surface.

Funding is running out soon for the Magellan project, however, and it will be turned off sometime this year, Van Lepp said sadly.

The Details

Where: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 4800 Oak Road Drive, on border of Pasadena and La Canada Flintridge.

When: Two-hour tours scheduled irregularly on weekdays, usually at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m.

Who: All ages are welcome.

How much: Free.

More information: To join a tour, call JPL at (818) 354-9314.

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