Despite a lengthy countdown to your tour date, scheduling a semi-private tour at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena is well worth the wait. Budding astronauts will gawk over watching rocket scientists at work, viewing life-sized models of all of JPL’s spacecraft, and getting a birds-eye view of the mission control room in action. Beam yourself up the 210 for an educational (and free!) day.

JPL flight projects center

photo credit: Shannon Guyton

Where Time And Space Meet
Patience, young Jedi.  Learning about space travel might take some time.  Tours book up months in advance and run every week at 1 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, alternating. There’s an option for groups of up to 10 and for groups of 20+. Go online to JPL’s free public tours page to check availability.


photo credit: Barbara Nale

Street, Er, Space Cred
One of the coolest parts of the 2 ½ hour tour is that with your souvenir badge around your neck, you’ll feel like a legit employee. Tour guides offer easy to understand explanations of astounding facts about space exploration.

JPL-Scientist-Touching-Screen Barbara

photo credit: Barbara Nale

Star Tours
The tour starts with a beautifully done 20-minute video of what we know about all the planets, narrated by none other than Han Solo himself.


photo credit: Barbara Nale

Next, you’ll get peek at scientists at work. Your tour guide will explain what projects the engineers are working on and why they keep the assembly room at 67 degrees and 51% humidity. Hint: when you get to the top of the stairs at this stop, stand toward the right so you can see the video playing.


photo credit: Barbara Nale

The third stop is the JPL museum where you’ll see life-sized replicas of a spacecraft dating back to 1936 when JPL was formed by rocket enthusiasts from the California Institute of Technology, to the most recent Mars Rover called Curiosity which is looking for life-supporting elements on Mars. You’ll have some time here on your own to explore the kid-friendly interactive exhibits.


photo credit: Barbara Nale

Your last stop (and arguably the coolest) is a room with a view of mission control. You’ll learn some fascinating details about the satellites that are tracking different activities and making discoveries every day around the world.

The theme of the campus is “Dare Mighty Things,” and your kids’ imaginations will be sparked and dreams inspired from taking a trip to JPL.


photo credit: Shannon Guyton

Ground Control Details
Food is not available for sale on campus, but there is a lovely park, the Hahamongna Watershed Park, right next door where you can have a picnic before your tour. Smaller groups can eat on the very pretty outdoor bench and table area where employees take their breaks.

Parking for visitors at JPL is easier than it appears. When you arrive at the gate of the campus you will show your driver’s license to the guard who should issue you a permit for the lot nearest the visitor center. Ask for the permit even if the guard doesn’t give you one! There’s a handy roundabout that is great for stopping to drop off anyone in your party that isn’t big on walking. (Because this tour is amazing to schedule when family, including Grandma and Grandpa who remember the original moon walk, is in town).


photo credit: Barbara Nale

Be prepared to walk. The tour goes for nearly a mile, including multiple flights of stairs. Wear comfortable shoes and in summer months don’t forget a sun hat, SPF and a bottle of water. There are elevators available, just let your tour guide know if you need one.

The tour is only semi-private. You could be grouped with as many as fifty other space invaders. Guides will split the groups by age.

Bathrooms and drinking fountains are available along the way and each inside stop is (thankfully) air-conditioned.

After your tour, stop in the cute and refreshingly reasonably priced gift shop to grab a NASA souvenir.

Best for ages 8 & up, but kids as young as 4 will enjoy the tour if they love space and can hold out for snacks for the 2 1/2 hours the tour takes.

If you can’t wait to check out JPL, you can attend the upcoming Open House on October 10 & 11, 2015.  The center will be open from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. No tickets or reservations required.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
4800 Oak Grove Dr.

Have you taken a tour of JPL?  What’s your favorite spot in town to explore infinity and beyond?

—Shannon Guyton