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Calling All Space Nuts

Glimpsing Earth's future in the sky and its history in the desert soil

January 03, 1999|SUSAN E. JAMES | James is a La Canada-based freelance writer

BARSTOW, Calif. — Long ago, in another lifetime far, far away, I used to drive out to Barstow once a week to read the strain gages on deep space antennas. This was in the early 1980s, when I worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Canada as part of the Deep Space Network (DSN). The strain gages monitored any unscheduled movement of the antennas, such as might be caused by an earthquake. The DSN was responsible for, among other things, the care and feeding of three giant, 211-foot-diameter dish antennas (enlarged in 1988 to 230 feet) built at Goldstone, 42 miles outside Barstow; at Robledo, Spain; and at Canberra, Australia. These gigantic ears of Earth were built 120 degrees apart in longitude to provide a continuous tracking communications network for space vehicles launched from Earth. The three giant antennas were, and are, the communications gateway for space, the final frontier.

During my many journeys out to Goldstone, I fell in love with the desert, the giant antenna and the Barstow area. I even loved Barstow itself, with its frontier atmosphere and the old, recently renovated Harvey House, where Judy Garland filmed "The Harvey Girls" in 1946.

Fifteen years since my last trip to Goldstone, I decided to visit my three loves once more. My father, an engineer and a JPL veteran of 44 years, went with me. We checked into the 5-year-old Holiday Inn Express on Main Street. The room was small but comfortable, and the complimentary breakfast (juice, fruit, cereal, sweet rolls, coffee, tea and hot chocolate) made a convenient and easy way to begin the day.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 10, 1999 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Barstow space antennas--Public tours of the Goldstone Deep Space Network facility in Barstow described in the Weekend Escape story "Calling All Space Nuts" (Jan. 3) were canceled Jan. 1 due to staffing cutbacks. The Times learned of this policy change after the story went to press.

The Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex is a 45-minute drive from downtown Barstow. The giant antenna and 11 smaller ones stand on 33,000 acres of desert wilderness leased by NASA from the military reservation of Ft. Irwin. Even though it stands in a military installation where war games are played, the Goldstone desert is like the back of the moon, beautiful, quiet and pristine. Free tours of the antennas can be booked Monday through Friday with Goldstone public liaison officer Barbara Holmes, (760) 255-8555, but require at least two weeks for clearance (more during high security alerts).

Early planning is essential, but it's worth it. As we drove through the gates of Goldstone, memories of ranging coyotes, flocks of beautifully marked wild partridges called chukars and the changing colors of the desert came flooding back. The tour lasted about 2 1/2 hours and covered a 112-foot antenna and the 230-foot giant that grows out of the desert like an enormous white mushroom. Barbara told us that the antenna could still talk to the unmanned spacecraft Voyager I, launched in 1977 and now almost 6.5 billion miles from Earth on a one-way trip to the stars.

"This antenna is so powerful," Barbara informed us, "that if you were to hide an apple in the hand of the Statue of Liberty, the antenna could find it in a microsecond." Twenty-one stories high, the great antenna sits in the desert silence listening to the sounds of the stars. "Live long and prosper," Dad told the guard at the gate as we left. "Another space nut," the guard's expression said. He wasn't far wrong.

That night, we toasted our past and Earth's future at my favorite Barstow restaurant, the Idle Spurs Steakhouse on Old Highway 58. The boys from JPL who had designed and built the three giant antennas once hung out here. As a small fountain splashed cheerfully beside us, we watched a glorious pink and orange desert sunset through the windows of the enclosed patio and ate superb sauteed mushrooms and excellent tenderloin of beef with rice pilaf. By the time we left, the night was as dark as the inside of a cavern and the sky was blazing with stars.

The next day we made a transition from "Star Trek" to "One Million Years B.C." by driving 10 miles east of town to the Calico Early Man Archeological Site. Here, several noted anthropologists have decided, early man lived beside a shallow Pleistocene lake 200,000 years ago. Stone tools have been found encrusted with a calcium carbonate cement upon which the dating is based. Site guide Yvonne showed us around the digs, which stretch in terraced layers up a desolate, rocky hillside.

"This site," Yvonne informed us, "was originally a betonite mine. That's a clay used as a lubricant and sealant. In the 1950s, when stone tools started showing up in the layers, Dr. Louis Leakey got interested." Leakey, famous for his early man discoveries at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, came to Barstow and excavated there from 1963 until his death in 1972. Yvonne made us don hard hats to enter the excavation pits, which run to a depth of 20 feet, down to the ancient clay of the prehistoric lake bed. Embedded in the walls, Yvonne pointed out what looked like a hand tool of red chert and the pointed heft of a stone anvil.

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