“Right across the Arroyo, we’re making plans for a real close encounter,” says Dave Doody, whose Art Center At Night seminar, “Basics of Interplanetary Flight,” is currently recruiting participants for a class that’s literally out of this world. “My team has been piloting the gangly robot Cassini in wide orbits around Saturn since 2010. But in coming years we’re going to drop in for some up-close-and-personal visits. We’ll plunge the spacecraft between the rings and the planet 22 times before letting go of the spent machine so it can burn up in the gas giant’s atmosphere like a meteor.”
This 2016-2017 segment of Cassini’s 20 year mission has been temporarily dubbed the “Proximal Orbits” by mission planners at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Doody works as a senior engineer, currently leading the Saturn-bound spacecraft’s flight operations controllers. But after acknowledging that some creative person somewhere could almost certainly conjure a more mission-worthy name, NASA launched the Cassini Name Game, hoping for some better ideas.
“One thing about these orbits will be their huge roller coaster speed,” says Doody. “The camera-laden craft will reach more than 120,000 kilometers an hour as it screams past the innermost ring particles just above the hazy atmosphere. Next, it’ll slow down for three and a quarter days, coasting ‘up’ to the top of its 1.2 million kilometer-high peak, before starting to drop back in again for its next pass. Wild.”
But Cassini isn’t the only game in town. Spacecraft are orbiting Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and soon Jupiter as well, all in touch through NASA’s Deep Space Network, which JPL operates. Plus Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are way, way, out there. Not to mention lots of famous space-based observatories. Pasadena really is the center of the universe, no?
Doody is a commercial pilot; and he brought computers into the learning environment when working as an instructor with Japan Airlines. Decades later, when he learned about Pasadena’s connection with interplanetary exploration, he convinced Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab to hire him to help fly spacecraft. After all, they are all about computers and flying.
Today, his Mission Controllers send commands to the spacecraft and manage the data coming back to Earth. And he’s always been eager to share the excitement. Says Doody: “People have dreamed for centuries about visiting those wandering lights in the sky. Now that it’s finally possible, we’ve got robotic emissaries all over the solar system. But they hardly ever enjoy as much public attention as I think they should.”
What’s the connection with Art Center College of Design, besides being neighbors? “Why not?” says Doody. “Art Center has long been about transportation design. So let’s look at how spacecraft are designed, what they have to do, and what conditions they have to operate in. But more than that, the results offer artists tons of new subjects to work with. And not just with visible light: Spacecraft can see in the infrared, the ultraviolet, and other ranges that are like whole new senses. And there are whole new worlds to see.”
So in 2006, Dave began teaching the Art Center at Night seminar. And participants have come from all walks of life—from cartoonists to surgeons, filmmakers to secretaries, celebrities to mechanics. No prior knowledge is necessary; only curiosity about what’s going on in the space around us.