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Don't Take the Real Walking Tour of the Mysterious Jet Propulsion Lab

It'll take you nearly a day and a walking distance of over 50 miles. That's why.
September 4, 2012, 5:40pm

It’ll take you nearly a day and a walking distance of over 50 miles. That’s why. Because if every big science lab has its oddities, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is a satchel of FBI files and possibly occult-addled moon babies strewn all willy nilly over semi-arid desert.

Having recently spent a weekend jaunt at the JPL campus, which sprawls over a narrow slice of the Arroyo Seco canyon near Pasadena, Calif., I can only sort of attest to the apparent lack of rhyme or reason behind the lab’s configuration. I didn’t have baller-status clearance, or anything – only something slightly above “everyday visitor” – so truly exploring the grounds would’ve landed me in cuffs. I think.


But as Luke Johnson, a graphic designer with JPL, discovered on a dare from a colleague, the lab’s layout is a certified clusterfuck.

Unlike most any other campus, JPL’s buildings aren’t named. Rather, they’re numbered in the order they received funding. Hence building No. 1720 being sandwiched between building Nos. 1300 and 199. Or building No. 1194 wedged between building Nos. 185 and 264. You get the idea. It’s not pretty. And so with a GPS tracker in tow, Johnson set out to chart the campus in numerical order. His expectations were way, way off the mark, of course. But the JPL death march did turn up some unexpected gems, not least some uncanny parallels to Lost. Oh, wow.

Top: President Johnson exiting Building 114 during a walking tour in 1961 (via NASA)

Reach this writer at @thebanderson