Ask NASA Climate | August 2, 2012, 17:00 PDT

My summer of curiosity and wonder

A JPL intern decides he isn't going to 'grow up' or 'get over it' just yet

Alec Loorz (left) poses with climate scientists Josh Willis (center) and Bill Patzert in front of a full-scale model of the Curiosity rover.

Alec Loorz (left) poses with climate scientists Josh Willis (center) and Bill Patzert in front of a full-scale model of the Curiosity rover.

Guest blogger Alec Loorz is the 18-year-old founder of the iMatter Campaign and a climate change activist and public speaker. He just completed a summer internship with the Earth Science Public Engagement Team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Just a few months ago my understanding of NASA wasn’t much more than “yeah they sent a man to the moon” and “that’s a pretty picture of the Earth.” Now, after four months of interning at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, I realize there is so much more. In an agency whose main driving force is an insatiable curiosity about Earth and the universe, I see the work of NASA and JPL as a perfect model of the sense of wonder a lot of us tend to lose track of.

I’m 18 years old, and I’ve always been driven by an intense desire to be constantly learning, constantly discovering new things. And whether it’s about volcanoes, mushrooms, or the mysteries of space, I’ve always been completely and utterly in awe of the magnificence of the universe.

But as I’m growing older I’m noticing this sense of amazement beginning to fade. Overwhelmed by the endless sea of expectations and cynicism imposed by our society, my sense of awe is being walled in and suppressed. In our culture, wonder is considered childish, being in awe of the world is seen as naïve, and inquisitiveness is threatening. Out in the world, we are constantly encouraged to “grow up” and “get over it.” But not at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

At JPL, wonder is the most important thing there is. Being in awe of the universe is the reason we are alive, the reason that 5,000 people are gathered together in this Disneyland-sized facility to send robots into space. Inquisitiveness is the expectation. Exploration is in our nature.

This Sunday, JPL will operate the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory on Earth’s red neighbor. It’s one of the most advanced machines ever sent into space, and its goals are to determine whether Mars could have ever supported life, to study the climate and geology of the planet, and even to plan for human missions in the future. There’s a reason the rover is named Curiosity.

And I’ve been working in the Earth Science division, where JPL operates a handful of satellites and instruments that measure things like CO2 and Earth’s gravitational field. In these missions, our sense of wonder becomes practical. Because in the data gathered by these satellites, there are some very obvious warning signs that something is not right. It’s become clear that human activities like fossil fuel burning and deforestation have knocked the delicate systems of Earth out of balance. And the research done here at the lab makes it much easier to understand the nature of these imbalances so that we can more intelligently deal with them.

So here’s to curiosity. Here’s to wonder. Here’s to returning to the sense of awe we were all born with, and tearing down the walls of jaded apathy built by an unbalanced society. We have the privilege of living on Earth as human beings in one of the most exciting times in history. So let’s not waste it. Go out and learn something new. Do something today you’ve never done before. There’s a whole universe out there waiting to be explored.

And it is truly awesome.