What’s missing when you sit in front of a computer all day? Adventure! Luckily, three Time and Navigation photography missions took me across the country last year, giving me the chance to escape the office. My first destination was Beer Bottle Pass in the Mojave Desert. This is where Stanley, the autonomous car, navigated its way to victory during the 2005 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge race. I needed a photo of the pass to cover the 27-foot wall behind Stanley in the Time and Navigation gallery. I was confident about this trip until I discovered how precarious this pass could be. The fact that Stanley was able to navigate these sheer drop-offs and steep inclines is remarkable.
After studying Google Earth for several weeks, my husband, Cory, and I were ready to go. We drove our rented Jeep Wrangler to our starting point outside Primm, Nevada. This area had received a record rainfall the previous week so we had to negotiate washed-out areas and large stones. It took us 45 minutes to travel the seven miles to the pass. Such a large mural requires more than just one photo; I needed a series that I could stitch together into a panorama. As we gradually moved into the pass, I looked for the best composition. Unfortunately, the road conditions got worse as we progressed, so we never made it to the most treacherous areas (fine with me!). Nevertheless, the trip was a success, and I was relieved to make a safe return to Primm.
Since Cory and I were “in the neighborhood,” we arranged a visit to the Goldstone Deep Space Network complex. Located about 35 miles north of Barstow on the Ft. Irwin Military Base, the NASA Deep Space Network is an international network of antennas that supports interplanetary missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for exploring the universe. I wanted to photograph an old hydrogen maser at the Mars 70-meter antenna. Now a backup, this maser was the primary frequency standard for the racks of Goldstone timing equipment we have on display in Time and Navigation.
Visiting Goldstone is no simple task. Hidden away in the middle of the desert, Goldstone is a 45-minute drive from the nearest highway. Disconcerting signs warned of tank crossings and live ammunition areas. After a safety briefing (don’t touch the snakes and don’t drink the water), our guides escorted us to the timing vault of the massive 70-meter antenna. The best part about the old maser is that it has a small hole at the top that allowed us to view the purple plasma glowing inside the equipment. After a few quick photos, we were allowed to take a brief look into the control room for the Curiosity rover. I found myself in a very different landscape for my third trip: the middle of a cornfield in Rippey, Iowa. I needed photos of farmer Roy Bardole harvesting his crops using equipment guided by GPS. Museum photographer Dane Penland agreed to accompany me on this adventure, and we headed to the drought-stricken area hoping there would actually be crops to photograph.
Dane and I ended up spending an entire day in the field with Roy and his two sons as they methodically worked their way through the stalks. We took turns riding inside the combine, watching as the enormous machine drove itself down the lengthy rows without wavering. Farming is much more involved than you might imagine, and I was impressed by the Bardoles’ business sense. Overall this trip was a success: the weather held, the Bardoles’ yield was better than expected, and the motel wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. I even got a special sendoff at the Des Moines airport, home to the Des Moines Air National Guard. As my airplane taxied to the runway, we passed several F-16s that were awaiting takeoff. As we passed, the pilots waved to us. It was a great way to end my adventure.