Numbers, facts, figures, equations. These are all obviously critical components of the space program. But numbers don't speak to our emotions. It's hard to commit millions of dollars and thousand of hours to an equation. We need something visceral that we can connect to.
That's where Dan Goods comes in. He's the Visual Strategist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—y'know, where spaceships and rovers come from. He takes NASA's indecipherable engineer-speak ideas and translates them into something we can understand.
What's that mean, exactly? He recreates the surface of Jupiter with water and light. He designs captivating visual displays tidy up and beautify messy jumbles of raw data. He builds a forum where some of the smartest people in the world can bounce ideas off of each other. And sometimes, he makes robots out of styrofoam. You might think of him as NASA's resident artist. Here's how he does it.
Dan primarily works in the Project Formulation building (a.k.a. building 303) at JPL, which is where the smarties cook up new mission concepts and other "things of the future." A big part of Dan's job is to help communicate ideas internally, within NASA. To that end, Dan helped create Left Field, a sort of informal jam session for rocket scientists the encourages out-of-the-box thinking when working out the earliest concepts. Once those concepts are agreed upon as viable (and vetted by Team X), Dan's job becomes about how to translate these ideas to the outside world.
If JPL is trying to win the bid to build a new rover, for example, they can either slog through all the obscure technical detail, or Dan can help them create images that convey the key ideas. In other words: Sure, I could just tell you about this giant, six-legged robot, that had modular toolkits and motors that both drove the wheels and actuated the tools. Andyou'd say, "Uh... 'kay. That sounds neat?" and we'd both call it a day. Or—with Dan's help—I could show you photos and 3D animations of the incredible ATHLETE rover. That's when a shrug turns into an "OH, WOW!" moment.
Without those moments, NASA doesn't get the funding to build anything. NASA JPL competes for contracts with other NASA branches and private companies as well. They need the most compelling pitch possible to win the bid. And Dan's work is nothing if not compelling.
Another side of Dan's job involves education, communicating ideas to the public in a way that resonates with us the non-PhDs. To that end, Dan creates art pieces that go to museums, showing off what NASA does in a more experiential way.
Most recently he collaborated with designer and creative technologist Justin Gier to create Beneath the Surface, which breathes life into NASA's Juno mission to Jupiter. The orbiter, which launched last summer and will arrive at Jupiter in 2016, will give us the closest look we've ever head at the gassy giant. It will attempt to penetrate the cloudy exterior to determine what the planet is composed of. How much water is there? What elements are most prominent? Are there insane electrical storms beneath those clouds that we can't see with the naked eye?
Sounds cool enough, but it's all pretty left-brain. However, walking into a room full of dense, glowing clouds with the sound of thunder rumbling beneath—which is how Beneath the Surface greets you—has a very different effect. Walk over to the one of the installation's phones (whose camera can see infrared light), and you can suddenly see flashes deep within the clouds. It makes you want to know more. It's what Dan calls "sneaking up on learning".
We got to look under the clouds at the technology beneath Beneath the Surface. It uses ultra-sonic misters, which vibrate ceramic plates so rapidly that they actually cause water to vaporize. The clouds are blown out of the trays using simple computer fans hooked up to an arduino board. Infrared security lights are synched up to sounds of thunder, and lasers are projected from the back. It really engages the whole brain and makes you feel like you're floating the surface of another planet. (Dan is in discussions with various museums and galleries. If you are interested in bringing it to your museum you can email email@example.com).
Back at JPL, Dan's mark can be seen everywhere. He designed the sign the welcomes you as you drive in, and those large screens in "The Center of the Universe" that translate the cold, hard data of space flight into something visually compelling for visitors. Dan also curates the spaces within the Project Formulation building. He tries to find things that will inspire engineers and get them thinking outside of the box. When you see the junk styrofoam from computer boxes being used to make robots, subconsciously you open up to possibilities that may not have occurred to you before.
The there's Ruben Margolin's Soda Fountain piece. It has just two motors that drive an undulating flow of soda bottles. Not only is it completely mesmerizing, but engineers often stop there and look underneath to see how the network of pulleys operate. It may sound trivial, but small things like that can lead to breakthroughs elsewhere.
There's a reason Dan approaches problems like an artist instead of a scientist: he's not a scientist. Dan went to Art Center College of Design and spent a summer working with scientists at CalTech, which NASA JPL is technically a part of. That changed his perspective on what he wanted to do with his life. On a tour with NASA JPL's director, Goods said that he would really like to work there. The director kind of smiled and nodded. NASA hires scientists, not artists. So, Goods went home and created an absurdly gigantic FedEx envelope which contained just a small letter and his resume. They were impressed. They said, we don't really know if this will work out, but we'll give you six months.
He's been an integral part of NASA for 9 years now.
Too often in this country we think of the arts as frivolous when compared to the sciences. In actuality, it's hard to find examples of one existing without the other. Dan Goods' work at NASA is one of the starkest examples of this. You can't build a rocket if you can't sell the idea to someone who wants to fund it, and no one will want to fund it if the public doesn't care. Artists and geeks, together at last.
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.
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