Jet Propulsion Laboratory Company History Timeline

(199 Jobs)
1936

The Caltech group's first tests of an alcohol-fueled rocket motor in the riverbed wilderness area took place on October 31, 1936.

1940

JPL’s first major advance in rocketry had come through the solid-propellant JATO units in 1940.

1942

A Douglas A-20 bomber testing JPL liquid-fueled Jet-Assisted Take Off motors in 1942.

1943

In midsummer 1943 Theodore von Karman, director of GALCIT, received some top secret photographs of what looked like concrete ski jumps on the north coast of France.

In their 1943 proposal, the Caltech team referred to their organization for the first time as "the Jet Propulsion Laboratory."

1947

Corporal E Round 31 launch at the United States Army's White Sands Proving Ground, May 22, 1947.

As early as 1947 President Truman established a new federal employees loyalty board; during the McCarthyism nightmare, the investigation of scientists reached a climax when J. Robert Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance.

1949

In 1949, a WAC Corporal, mounted on a V-2 in a configuration known as a “Bumper WAC,” achieved an altitude of more than 300 km.

1950

The Joint Chiefs of Staff accordingly turned down the army request early in 1950.

1955

A United States Army anti-aircraft missile model in JPL's supersonic wind tunnel, May 1955.

1956

Re-Entry Test Vehicle program's "Missile 27" on launcher, September 17, 1956.

1957

After the humiliating launch pad explosion of the Navy's Vanguard project launch attempt in December 1957, JPL and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency were allowed to try.

The Army proposed doing exactly that for the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an 18-month period starting in 1957, but a United States government decision awarded that task to a coalition effort based on the Navy’s Viking rocket to build a vehicle called Vanguard.

1958

Launch of Explorer 1, January 31, 1958.

With Explorer I, JPL vaulted the United States into space and prompted the formation of NASA. On December 3, 1958, two months after NASA started operations, JPL was transferred from Army jurisdiction to that of the new civilian space agency.

In 1958 the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, operating in conjunction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, launched Explorer I, the first United States satellite, and it subsequently conducted other programs of space and lunar exploration.

In California Institute of TechnologyIn 1958 the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, operating in conjunction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, launched Explorer I, the first United States satellite, and it subsequently conducted other programs of space and lunar exploration.

1960

Deep-space mission planners knew that an October 1960 launch window offered the first chance in human history for a mission to Mars.

On October 10 and 14, 1960, the Soviets attempted to launch robotic spacecraft to Mars.

Briefly studied as a goal for a large spacecraft to be named Mariner A, the prospect of a 1960 mission to Mars was soon abandoned as too ambitious.

In 1960, JPL also embarked on a second lunar program called Surveyor.

1961

Two Ranger test spacecraft, launched August 23 and November 18, 1961, were intended to demonstrate Sun and Earth attitude information systems, solar power, and high-gain communications from high-apogee orbits not aimed at the Moon.

The balance of power between JPL and NASA had begun to shift with the escalation of the manned space program in mid-1961.

1962

Mariner 2, JPL and NASA’s first successful planetary mission in 1962, derived its spacecraft design and some operations concepts from Ranger.

A smaller craft called Mariner R, derived from Ranger, was chosen for a mission to Venus during the 1962 launch window.

One was Mariner, the first United States flyby of Mars, which presented significant technical challenges by comparison with the 1962 Mariner mission to Venus.

1964

The project fell far behind schedule, and in 1964 it was overhauled.

Mariner 3 and 4, launched at the 1964 Mars opportunity, were larger spacecraft requiring the increased performance of Atlas-Agena D. In the flight of Mariner 3, the payload shroud failed to separate, causing loss of the mission.

The Ranger project attracted the most outside attention to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1964, and JPL redoubled its efforts to make it work.

But Ranger’s problems were complicated by two other projects that reached critical stages in 1964.

1965

JPL's Mariner 4 was the first successful mission to Mars, returning a handful of shocking images after a short 1965 flyby showing a cratered, Moon-like surface.

JPL Director William Pickering with a model of the Mariner 4 spacecraft, circa 1965.

1969

Launched by Atlas-Centaurs at the 1969 Mars opportunity, Mariner 6 and 7 flew by southern latitudes on Mars, sending images of the ancient cratered surface of the martian highlands, leading to the erroneous opinion that Mars resembled the Moon.

1970

The 64-meter "Mars" antenna at the Goldstone Deep Space Network station in California in 1970.

1971

In 1971, Mariner 9 became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, imaging almost the entire surface of Mars.

1974

In February 1974, Mariner Venus Mercury, also known as Mariner 10, used a gravity assist from Venus to reach Mercury, the last of the inner planets to be visited.

1976

The first landing, on July 20, 1976, was delayed by discovery that the original landing site appeared to be too rocky.

JPL and NASA's Langley Research Center collaborated on the Viking mission to Mars, which landed biological experiments in 1976.

1977

Voyager 2 was launched first, on August 20, 1977, on a somewhat slower trajectory than Voyager 1, which was launched two weeks later.

A Voyager awaiting encapsulation at Kennedy Space Center, August 4, 1977.

The most famous case of this was the grand Voyager missions launched in 1977 (see later discussion). But this was not clear when Ranger began.

1978

JPL also found its first major Earth science opportunity in this era, 1978's Seasat-A mission.

1982

The research effort, set up as a Caltech-operated Army facility, became JPL (Koppes, 1982). The laboratory’s transition from jet-assisted take-off rockets to guided missiles was fostered by the United States discovery of the German V-2 rockets.

More than 300 JPL engineers were assigned to work with Hughes engineers, and the NASA program manager, Benjamin Milwitzky, formed an executive management council that included Hughes’ Vice President Allen Puckett to ensure adequate management attention (Koppes, 1982, pp.172–183).

Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.Koppes, C. R. (1982). JPL and the American space program: A history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Koppes, C. R. (1982). JPL and the American space program: A history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

1983

The first of these was the Magellan radar mission to Venus, authorized in 1983.

Launched in 1983, IRAS operated for 10 months, mapping 96% of the sky.

…was chief technologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and in 1983 he joined Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

In John Robinson Pierce…was chief technologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and in 1983 he joined Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

Pierce In John Robinson Pierce…was chief technologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and in 1983 he joined Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

1986

NASA ultimately developed a version of the Centaur upper stage for the Shuttle but, after the Challenger accident of 1986, abandoned it.

1989

Launched in by Shuttle Atlantis on May 4, 1989, it produced a radar map covering nearly the entire Venusian surface.

Magellan being released from Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 1989.

New York, NY: HarperCollins.Murray, B. C. (1989). Journey into space: The first thirty years of space exploration.

Icarus, 222(2), 424–435.Waff, C. B. (1989). The struggle for the outer planets.

Murray, B. C. (1989). Journey into space: The first thirty years of space exploration.

After the Challenger accident, President Reagan decided to remove all future planetary missions from the Shuttle program, but these three were far enough along in development that they could not easily be reworked for a traditional, expendable launch vehicle. It was finally launched by Shuttle Atlantis in 1989 but from that launch year had to be launched toward Venus and use gravity assists from Venus and Earth (twice) to reach Jupiter.

1990

Early in 1990, Voyager 1 turned its camera around to capture a series of images assembled into a "family portrait" of the solar system.

Intended to be the observatory's primary imaging instrument, WFPC operated flawlessly when the telescope was finally launched in 1990.

1992

It also became the target of attacks by NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, appointed in 1992, who deemed it too big, too slow, and too expensive.

DeVorkin, D. H. (1992). Science with a vengeance: How the military created the US space sciences after World War II. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

1993

Astronomy, 17(9), 44–52.Waff, C. B. (1993, April). The road to the deep space network.

Waff, C. B. (1993, April). The road to the deep space network.

JPL's Wide Field and Planetary Camera being replaced during Servicing Mission 1, December 1993.

The Discovery program, combined with a new Mars exploration program approved after Mars Observer’s 1993 loss, would radically transform the way JPL operated.

1995

7, 1995, measuring the composition of Jupiter's atmosphere until it was crushed, as expected, by extreme pressure.

1997

Cassini-Huygens spacecraft in JPL's 25 foot Space Simulator on January 31, 1997.

The “Battlestar Galactica” of missions, Cassini/Huygens, left Earth on October 15, 1997.

Mars Pathfinder's micro-rover, named Sojourner, for abolitionist Sojourner Truth, in 1997 became the first robotic rover to explore the Red Planet.

1998

In February 1998, Voyager 1 passed NASA's Pioneer 10 to become the most distant human-made object in space.

A NASA-commissioned investigation into the Mars Surveyor 1998 failures concluded that “Mars ’98 had inadequate resources to accomplish the requirements.

After the Mars Surveyor 1998 failures, the JPL created an Office of Safety and Mission Success to maintain technical and management standards, and “product quality” in current management jargon, while project implementation remains within thematic directorates—Earth, Mars, Solar System, and so on.

Roy, S. A. (1998). The origin of the smaller, faster, cheaper approach in NASA’s solar system exploration program.

2001

These rovers did not require a lander to communicate with and manage them as Mars Pathfinder’s rover had; they could be operated either via a relay orbiter (Mars Global Surveyor and, later, 2001 Mars Odyssey, served as their primary relays) or from Earth via a small on-board high-gain antenna.

Somewhat unusually, JPL also managed the development of the Kepler exoplanet hunting telescope, which was awarded to NASA Ames Research Center’s William Borucki in 2001.

2002

Siddiqi, A. A. (2002). Deep space chronicle: A chronology of deep space and planetary probes (SP-2002-4524). Washington, DC: NASA.

2003

After the failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, NASA approved the Mars Exploration Rover mission, whose two rovers were named "Spirit" and "Opportunity" after their launch in July 2003.

The Galileo orbiter lasted until September 2003, when JPL ordered it to plunge into Jupiter's atmosphere to ensure that it would not crash into, and contaminate, any of Jupiter's moons.

After the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, NASA and JPL embarked on a rapid planning exercise to decide what to send to Mars in 2003 and what to do for the rest of the decade.

Dethloff, H. C., & Schorn, R. (2003). Voyager’s grand tour: To the outer planets and beyond.

Mishkin, A. (2003). Sojourner: An insider’s view of the Mars Pathfinder mission.

The Spitzer Space Telescope being prepared for launch in 2003.

2004

Instead, JPL’s navigators redesigned the spacecraft’s first four orbits to improve the communications geometry and thereby reduce the Doppler shift that Cassini’s receiver would experience. It reached Saturn on July 1, 2004, though not unproblematically.

Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity looks back at its lander shell in 2004.

The Stardust mission collected particles from comet Wild-2 in 2004, while the Genesis mission returned some particles from the solar wind in 2004.

2005

Huygens was released on the redesigned third orbit instead (Oberg, 2005).

Squyres, S. (2005). Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the exploration of the red planet.

That orbiter mission became the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2005.

The Deep Impact mission launched a kinetic impactor at Comet Tempel 1 to assess its structure and composition in 2005.

2006

JPL also won a cloud research mission, CloudSat, launched in 2006, as well as a series of atmospheric carbon dioxide measuring missions, the Orbiting Carbon Observatories, and the Aquarius sea surface salinity mission.

2007

A composite image of Saturn and its rings, May 9, 2007.

37–70). Galileo’s principal scientific discoveries were about Jupiter’s moons; at least one, Europa, proved to have a shell of water ice with a still liquid ocean beneath (see Melzer, 2007).

Lambright, W. H. (2007). Leading change at NASA: The case of Dan Goldin.

2009

JPL also managed the development of Ames Research Center's Kepler exoplanet astronomy mission, launched in 2009.

2010

Out of that pair of exercises came a mixed program that was devised to develop the technological infrastructure for a Mars Sample Return mission around 2010, as well as preserve competition.

Acta Astronautica, 51(1), 491–500.Pyne, S. J. (2010).Voyager: Seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery.

Pyne, S. J. (2010).Voyager: Seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery.

Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover drive testing at JPL in 2010.

2011

202–205; Hubbard, 2011). The flagship class missions were the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs), the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and a Mars Science Lander to kick off the multimission sample return campaign.

NASA History Series (SP-4210). Washington, DC: NASA.Hubbard, S. (2011). Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a decade of discovery.

Tucson: University of Arizona Press.Huntress, W. T., & Marov, M. Y. (2011). Soviet robots in the solar system.

Hubbard, S. (2011). Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a decade of discovery.

Huntress, W. T., & Marov, M. Y. (2011). Soviet robots in the solar system.

2012

In August 2012, Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause to become the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space.

2015

Washington, DC: NASA.Meltzer, M. (2015). The Cassini-Huygens visit to Saturn: An historic mission to the ringed planet.

Conway, E. M. (2015). Exploration and engineering: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the quest for Mars.

Meltzer, M. (2015). The Cassini-Huygens visit to Saturn: An historic mission to the ringed planet.

2017

Enceladus proved to be the source of material for Saturn’s E-ring, and the evidence of water led to rather extravagant astrobiological speculations about the tiny moon (Thompson, 2017).

* In millions of FY 2017 dollars.

NASA Data from the 2017 Aeronautics and Space Report of the President; JPL Data from JPL CFO.

15, 2017, when its fuel ran low and the flight team crashed the spacecraft into Saturn's atmosphere to avoid contaminating moons that could harbor native microscopic life.

2018

Its successor, GRACE-Follow On, launched in 2018.

2019

NASA. (2019). Cassini: The grand finale.

Perseverance is also designed to collect and store rock samples on the Martian surface for retrieval by a future Mars sample return mission, formally approved by NASA in 2019.

Founded
1936
Company Founded
Headquarters
Pasadena, CA
Company Headquarter
Founders
Apollo Smith,Edward Forman,Frank Malina,Jack Parsons,Qian Xuesen,Theodore Von Karman,Weld Arnold
Company Founders

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