Have you ever wondered how the hell spaceships get made? I mean, how does something like the six-legged ATHLETE rover go from an engineering fantasy into an actual working thing? Creativity? Technological know-how? Sure, you need plenty of that. But most of all: It takes the stones to dream up what no one ever thought possible, and the will to bring it to life.

The creative forces behind all that big thinking hang out at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, in teched-out offices that look like ad agencies from the future. And we got to take a look behind the curtain.

Galactic Brainstorm

JPL's A-Team—a small group of creative thinkers with diverse backgrounds that's composed of different people every time—gets together in a place known as Left Field. Left Field is a flexible space that kind of looks like a pop-up pre-school. It's packed full of toys, and it's only been around for the last year. Paired with a Principal Investigator (a.k.a. the main scientist), the A-Team brainstorms ideas to address the priorities of the Decadal Survey. The Decadal Survey, which takes place whenever NASA wants to reassess its research priorities for the next 10 years, compiles a list of dream projects from some of the world's best science minds. The most recent one came out in March of last year, and called for, among other things, a new Mars Sky Crane and a Saturn Ring Observer.

The A-Team comes up with some wild ideas, and the best ones are sent to Team X—a larger group that has an expert from each critical subset of a mission (eg: power, navigation, structures, propulsion, thermal, telecomm, etc). They look at things more critically, say what is/isn't practical/possible.

A Team X session is quick and dirty: nine intense hours with roughly 30 people crammed into a room. Each member takes care of his or her specialty independently, and moves the dynamic design forward as a whole. There's a lot of back and forth, and it sort of resembles trading on the floor of the NYSE. The team also sharpens the pencil quite a bit with regards to cost. Things get bounced back and forth between Left Field and Team X for a while until they come up with an idea that works.

Approval Matrix

When a "funding opportunity" arises, the JPL brass figures out which Team X "graduates" fit within the scope and cost cap, and an official proposal is written. See, this money isn't just handed out; JPL has to compete with other NASA facilities and private companies for the contract. If NASA JPL wins the contract then they start the official preliminary design phase. It's important to note that there are many flavors of "winning". They might have the PI make the thing and then do all the science, or they might just manage it, or simply make an instrument for someone else. Every proposal is different.

If JPL wins a contract to build something, it's time for its Mechanical Design Center to get involved. These engineers figure out how to make the concept a reality—what metals will work, what shape a joint should be, etc. Team X comes up with a sort of refined sketch; the MDC makes the CAD drawing where every bolt and beam is precisely represented. It would go something like this:

Scientists: "Get these 10 science instruments to Mars and make sure they're still working when they get there. Also we want to test in more locations than just were we land"
Engineers: "OK, then it should probably have wheels…"

But then they need to make decisions like should it have 4 wheels or 8? How big should the wheels be? What material should they be made out of? And so on. They're adding a ton of details and modifying the back-of-the-envelope work done in Team X. This is known as the Preliminary Design Phase.

Once the engineers feel pretty good about their design there's a Final Design Review where they have to present it to a roomful of "graybeards." Translation: old dudes who are ridiculously smart and have been doing this for a long time. Since NASA is working on problems that have never been tackled before, there are no real experts—but they're the most qualified people on the planet. You would probably be intimidated.

Building the Dream

View gallery »

If it passes the Final design review, it's off to the machine shops to make the prototype parts. Then the engineers put the product together and test the crap out of it to make sure it performs as everyone intended. If the prototype works and looks good, then the place best suited to make the part will be selected—either JPL's on-site machine shop or a local one. Nothing is mass produced; everything is a one off (maybe a two off).

Finally, the thing is launched and JPL tracks, monitors, and manages it from the Space Flight Operation Facility: the "Center of the Universe". You'll see that up close next week.

And that's how it works. Aren't you glad you asked?

Huge thanks to Jared Lang, John Ziemer, Dan Goods, Joan Ervin, Kendra Short, William Allen, Mark Rober (who you may recognize from our iPad Halloween Costume or Magnetic Office Darts videos), and everybody else at JPL.


Space Camp is all about the under-explored side of NASA. From robotics to medicine to deep-space telescopes to art. For these couple of weeks we'll be coming at you direct from NASA JPL and NASA Ames, shedding a light on this amazing world. You can follow the whole series here.

Video shot by Judd Frazier, edited by Woody Jang.

Special thanks to Mark Rober, Jessica Culler, Dan Goods, Val Bunnell, and everybody at NASA JPL and NASA Ames for making this happen. The list of thank yous would take up pages, but for giving us access, and for being so generous with their time, we are extremely grateful to everyone there.

Space Camp® is a registered trademark/service of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. This article and subsequent postings have not been written or endorsed by the U.S. Space & Rocket Center or Space Camp®. To visit the official space camp website, click here.