What happens in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The absolutely right address for space technicians

"Houston, we have a problem."

A significant part of the American space program takes place far away from Houston and Cape Canaveral, namely in JPL, California, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles:

The JPL is NASA's center for planetary exploration. We launch unmanned probes to planets. We also carry out surveys of the earth, with manned and unmanned missions.

The 37-year-old Berlin-based Otfrid Liepack is one of 5,500 employees at JPL. The graduate engineer for space technology did not make it from dishwasher to millionaire, but at least from a temporary contract to permanent position in one of the most important space and rocket research institutions in the USA:

In 1992 I was very fortunate to meet a project manager from the Galileo mission at the time. As part of my diploma thesis at the TU Berlin, I worked with the project manager and the JPL. At the beginning of 95 I asked for an internship. They gave me a visa for four months. After three months I was asked if I would like to stay.

Since then, Liepack has been involved in the planning and implementation of the Galileo, Cassini and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter missions. He is currently working on setting up the Space Interferometry Mission, which is to network several JPL telescopes from 2009 onwards. The working day usually has ten to twelve hours, but time flies. Nevertheless, the occasional downer is inevitable. Setbacks such as the Challenger and Columbia disasters, for example, which brought negative headlines to the entire NASA, or impending budget problems or the looming dwindling influence of German space technology:

I would say that German space travel is still top class, but unfortunately the distribution of funds in Germany currently does not allow you to participate in the planetary development, as it was back then in the eighties or seventies.

And that's exactly why the Berliner is firmly convinced that budding aerospace engineers are actually better off in the USA than in Germany.

The United States, seeing that this is a national product.

And yet: There is no need to worry, says Liepack. Future aerospace engineers should never be discouraged, persistence always pays off on the way to success:

It is very important not only to pay attention to the grades, but to be actively involved, go to congresses, actively participate in student organizations, speak to the public. Because if you try to make space travel public, you also recognize the problems that the public has with it. If you understand that, you can sell space travel and yourself better with it.

After eight years in California, the German "Rocketman" has now applied for American citizenship, bought a house and married. Homesick for Germany? Sure, every now and then, he says, but with a view to his job and calling, Liepack feels absolutely right at JPL:

There is no better institute - at least not on earth, and we have not yet found another planet where there could be a JPL.