Designer walks into NASA

A short story on an epic trip to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, American hero.

“I hope you’re ready. My last trip here was better than my wedding.” Sarah’s dead serious. We’re at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, and she’s got no chill. I raise an eyebrow at her, nod, give the sky a contentious look as it starts to rain.

We’re waiting for a personal tour of JPL, accompanied by Tim Allen and Albert Shum, our creative leads on the Windows Design team. I assume we’re all on the same page about how awesome this is. We geek out and fidget as we wait for our guide to fetch us from the visitor’s center.

Jessie Kawata, Industrial Design Lead & Creative Innovation Strategist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (amazing title), strides through the unassuming lobby, all clout and graciousness. She looks like a designer at NASA, damn her. Effortless brainy chic. We shake hands and venture out to explore the rest of the JPL campus, and for the next seven hours, we’re given an inside look at one of the most surreal workplaces in the world.

I can’t overstate how amazing this day was. Sarah was proven right, over and over. I wanted to move in. I wanted to make it my personal playground. I wanted to get married here, point my guests to the Spacecraft Assembly Facility to cut the cake, no big deal.

We’re eventually slated to speak to Jessie’s team about the power of design thinking. In the meantime, Jessie walks us through a wonderland of NASA buildings, speaking to mind-blowing things with her comrade Randii Wessen, Deputy Manager Project Formulation Office. We meet the designers and engineers who use HoloLens to build the next Mars Rover. We meet an actual Mars Rover (hey buddy). We meet graphic designers who dream up space mission campaigns in the organized chaos of a trailer on a hill. Jessie points out a water-tower-looking thing that mimics the heat of the sun, la dee da. We pass a caged dirt field with scattered space parts, a mad scientist’s graveyard of demolitions. We’re shown the Star Shade Lab and I lose it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen, and the guy in charge has his PhD in origami, because of course. The Star Shade is a compact little artifact that sits patiently on a vessel to the stars, then pops open to the size of a baseball field, unfolding like a gorgeous lotus flower in the middle of outer space. Casual. We see mission control. WE SEE MISSION CONTROL.

A Mars rover prototype chills in a mess of awesome.

Suffice it to say that JPL is an incredible place, filled with incredible people. Everyone is salt of the earth, among the brightest minds on the planet; humble, patient, and excitable. There are things to be done and JPL is damn sure doing them. Planets to explore. Galaxies to discover. Mankind to save. You know.

Infected by the epic spirit of the day, we meet to talk shop with Jessie’s A-Team, a crew of design strategists, researchers, program managers, and industrial designers dedicated to bringing NASA missions to life through design thinking and storytelling. We talk for two hours about design: what it means to Microsoft, what it means to NASA, what it means to humanity (yep). We’re transfixed by everything they say, and vice versa. Microsoft is enormous in terms of manpower and resources; NASA in terms of imagination and grit. We combine our expertise and pain points. Talk like therapists. Sketch solutions for things we don’t even understand. Plan a road trip to Mars together.

This is the power of design. Avid, creative minds coming together to sketch and muse and solve. Artists thinking like scientists and scientists thinking like artists. Learning, nodding, embracing, getting starry-eyed. It’s so important to chase that feeling — that collaborative magic. Go find your outer space, designers. I bet it’s closer than you think.