Tar pits, Rovers, and Telescopes Oh My!

Atop the Griffith Observatory | PC: Allysa Mae T.

Scroll to bottom for recommendation and rating list

It’s been a little less than a week since I’ve returned from my 6-day-trip down to southern CA. This largely consisted of waking up at the buttcrack of dawn on Friday and driving (and driving and more driving) down to the coast of Sunny California. It was worth every minute of driving. Thankfully, small rest stops along the drive at places of interest helped make the drive not-so-bad. Perhaps one of my favorite pit stops was the Mariposa Grove, which, as its name suggests, is a popular place for the monarch butterflies to hang out at during their crazy-long migrations. Did you know it takes five generations of butterflies to complete the journey between Canada and Mexico? Currently, the mystery of how latter generations seem to have the “memories” of the previous generation (in terms of where they are at and which direction they should be flying and what their destination is) still baffles scientists and researchers . . . but it’s pretty neat nonetheless!

Finally arriving in LA in the evening, I was pretty much ready to crash. But my amazing roommate and work partner (and photographer guru) convinced me to make one last run outside to a nearby taco truck (apparently LA is famous for a bunch of dollar taco stands?). We ended up at Los Pepe’s Taco Truck and can fully recommend! Tacos were 1.25 (they were soft tacos maybe 3-4″ in diameter) and a good sized drink (I got a horchata) was only 2.00! Definitely good bang for your buck. The truck was also poppin’ with business, but the service was still pretty fast.

Venturing out for late-night tacos

The next day, I was up once again bright and early for some hiking at the Leo Carillo State Park. The drive took a little more than an hour, and by the time we reached the park, the day was already getting pretty warm despite it only being late morning. Parking was fairly easy and $12 for the entire day. The nearby campground also had faucets for hikers to use to fill up their bottles. Please pack a lot of water if you ever hike here. It was November, and it was hot and dry and sunny. There is basically zero shade along the hiking trails–you’re constantly exposed to the sun. Also, be warned that it is pretty dusty too. Walking along the paths, it was clear that a wildfire had swept through not too long ago–a lot of burnt cacti, charred remains, and even trail signs that had clearly been exposed to fire.

But perhaps the most memorable sight was this chill-looking guy walking down the trail with a beer in one hand and a small dog in the other–and if that isn’t the The Life, then I don’t know what is. I really wished I snapped a picture.

Leo Carillo State Park

After the hike, me and the ladies were beyond happy to discover that there was an underpass connecting the parking lot directly to the beach! It would’ve been nice to have known the beach would be so accessible (as I would’ve packed towels and flip flops and beach clothes), but we made do with our sweaty hiking attire. The beach was fairly quiet and stretched on what felt like forever in both directions. There were a couple surfers, which were fun to watch, and many tidepools to explore. The water was pretty cool, the sand pleasantly soft and warm, and I may or may not have just passed out for a long nap.

After beaching, we packed up and began the hour-ish drive back to Santa Monica to meet up with the rest of the group. We stopped by the Malibu Farm Cafe which I cannot recommend enough. The place was extremely busy, but there was also plenty of seating in a large space, so it didn’t feel overcrowded. The staff was extremely efficient and friendly, and the atmosphere and vibe of the cafe was that quintessential “southern Cali aesthetic”. The view couldn’t be beat either–the cafe was situated at the end of a pier, and my group managed to snag a window seat and passed the time chatting or watching people fish outside. The food was delicious–all the ingredients were sourced locally–if not a touch expensive. Also, I realize my cost standards have changed drastically after living in California for several months now (Silicon Valley is expensive!!) but even this was a bit pricey by CA standards. The base price for my salad was $18. Add in drinks + tip and I’m easily in the $30 range for a lunch at a nice, but casual (aka not fancy) restaurant.

Lunch at the Malibu Farm Cafe

The rest of the late afternoon/early evening was spent at my friend’s aunt + uncle’s place, where they had the cutest golden retriever pup. As sunset rolled around, we joined up with the big group to grab dinner at the Santa Monica Pier. Seeing the end of Highway 66 at the pier was pretty neat–tbh, I didn’t even know it was a thing until that night. We ate at Mariasol, a Mexican restaurant situated on the pier. I’d definitely recommend making a reservation if you have a group of 6+. We were lucky that our group (15 people) ended up snagging a previous reservation of 15 that never showed, so we didn’t have to wait long. If giant margaritas are your thing, then Mariasol would be the place to go. Offering 5 (? if I remember correctly) different sizes, even the second smallest option offered up a pretty big serving of frozen margarita.

Dinner at Mariasol

Sunday, we allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping in a little later. Then the women of aeromech (all four of us, whoot!) trucked down to La Brea Tar Pits (which is honestly a very redundant name since “brea” = tar so the name really is “The Tar Tar Pits”). It was pretty cool just seeing these tar pits out in the open, stinking of sulfur and bubbling with menace. These tar pits have proven to be an invaluable stash of archeological finds, with fossils of mammoths, dire wolves, prehistoric lizards, and saber tooth cats, found in well-preserved conditions within them. The tar pits were mostly all outside and free to access (only had to pay for parking); there were a couple sheltered tar pits that were currently being excavated, which was neat to observe as well. The area also had a museum that looked pretty interesting, though we ultimately didn’t go inside. At any rate, I’m already working out how to fit tar pits into one of my WIPs.

The Mother of All Tar Pits

The late afternoon featured a return to Santa Monica, where we grabbed a delicious lunch at the Blue Plate Taco. This was perhaps my favorite restaurant of the entire trip: Wonderful vibe (right beside the pier), friendly staff, delicious food, fair prices (especially for its location), and did I mention they had apple cinnamon frozen margaritas??? Basically imagine a hard apple cider in slushee form. It was amazing.

The Queen of Drinks | PC: Allysa Mae T.

After lunch, we found a nice quiet stretch of the beach to promptly knock out once more. Hey, napping is important to a person’s overall well being, okay?

Beneath the Piers of Santa Monica

The real treat of the day, though, was visiting the Griffith Observatory that evening. We arrived a little later than desired, as we had wanted to catch the entire sunset but only managed to glimpse the tail end of it. After parking at one of the lower lots (there are many parking lots along the road up to the top of the summit, where the telescopes and all that fun stuff are located, along with road-side parking), we took a brisk hike up to the top and was greeted with the view of LA sprawled below us. The observatory was quite a big, with a monolithic building housing a good-sized museum, planetarium, cafe, and gift shop. Oh, did I mention that the museum is free? There wasn’t enough time for me to explore all of the museum, but what was available was pretty interesting.

Being able to see the telescopes in action was pretty neat as well. One of the highlights though, was without a doubt, the planetarium shows. We ended up attending two: “Centered in the Universe” and “Light of the Valkyries”. These were live-narrated show taking place in one of the most gorgeous planetariums I’ve ever been in. The lines were pretty long, and people would line up quite early. Luckily, since it is a planetarium after all, there really isn’t a bad seat in the room. Tickets were $5 for students and $7 for adults.

The following day, Monday, was spent at Six Flags Magic Mountain. I won’t dwell too much here except state that: buy your tickets online (and save $23), go during off season (we had minimal lines), and don’t come here if you hate roller coasters. For those of you who don’t know, I l o v e thrilling rides and crazy roller coasters, so the overall experience was a blast (if you discount the super salty pretzel I bought for $9 . . . seriously why are they always over-salted??)

Tuesday rolls around, and the aeromechs swung into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) bright and early at 8 am sharp. One of the former aeromech interns at NASA Ames now works at JPL, so we were lucky enough to have a private, off-the-beaten path tour with her, which included talking to the engineer who oversaw the Cassini mission and Opportunity mission (aka the guy who sent Cassini’s final command) and snacking on the (in)famous Lucky Peanuts.

Charles Elachi Mission Control Center

We also visited the “Center of the Universe” at the Flight Operations Center. (Side note: can we get a shoutout for the aesthetics of this room?) The joke goes that since all the Deep Space Network data passes through the Charles Elachi Mission Control center, that place was basically like the center of the universe–and will remain that way until someone is able to disprove that fact. There’s a plaque embedded into the floor of the control center deeming it the “center of the universe”; it also, as it happens to be, a popular place for marriage proposals to happen.

“Station controls, how may I help you?” | PC: Allysa Mae T.

The primary job of the center was to monitor the 3 massive DSN satellites located around the world: California, Australia, and Spain. They are positioned so that there will always be a connection to our probes/rovers/orbiting satellites no matter the time of the day/year. A fact I found very impressive is that ever since opening in 1966 (if my memory serves correctly), the control center has been constantly manned by at least 5 engineers/technicians ever since. As the group quietly snapped our photos then tip-toed out of the control center (so not to disturb the workers), we entered another iconic room at JPL: The Critical Event Room.

Critical Event Room

I’ve seen this room countless times in live streams and movies, but actually being in the room and sitting at the mission control seats was a whole other level. There, we learned more about the JPL history and the room setup (mission operators sit up front; people who provide a lot of funding/have political clout sit in the back). From there, we bade farewell to the Flight Operations building and rolled into a different place to see an engineering model of the Mars Helicopter Technology Demonstrator (MHTD).

As if seeing a technological twin of the actual MHTD going to Mars (it got attached to the Mars 2020 Rover belly a couple months ago, so unfortunately we weren’t able to see that) wasn’t cool enough, we got to chat with some of the engineers who worked on the MHTD. Including the legendary Bob Balaram, one of the project leaders. Me and my project partner might have been a bit awestruck. (For context, me and my partner are currently working on the Mars Science Helicopter project, which will hopefully be the successor to the MHTD.) The engineers were incredibly nice and answered our ceaseless questions. A fun fact that even I didn’t know despite reading literally every. single. paper. published on the MHTD was that the MHTD has to thank the vaping industry for its lithium batteries. The batteries used on the copter is of the Sony lithium variety; supposedly each generation of batteries is an improved version of the previous. There are currently 5 generations. Yet the MHTD uses generation 4. This is because the generation 4 batteries is a lot more powerful that generation 5 (which is built to last longer) . . . and here’s the kicker . . . Sony built the generation 4 batteries specifically for the vaping industry. I forget the wattage these gen 4 batteries work at, but it was an impressive number. As Balaram would say, “Vapers are sticking these powerful batteries into their mouths . . . which are probably charged with cheap adapters . . . they’re braver than me.”

We also stopped by a replica of Curiosity and learned the amusing story behind its strange looking cut-outs on its wheels. The story goes that when JPL built the rover, they wanted to have the JPL logo/name on it somewhere, and they thought it would be cool if the rover could stamp out “JPL” into the Martian soil as it rolled, so they made ridges with the letters JPL on the wheels. However, when NASA sent their guy to check over the rover and give it the green light, they didn’t like the JPL wheels–they thought if anything, it should read “NASA”–and told JPL to get rid of it. Well, JPL wasn’t too keen on the idea and instead added these holes to the wheels. When the NASA guys came back to do another check over, they asked about the holes in the wheels, to which JPL said something along the lines of “it’s to help prevent dust and sand getting caught inside the wheel–it’ll allow the grains to drain out”. NASA gave the green light. It was only after the rover blasted off on its journey to Mars did JPL turn to NASA and say, “So yeah . . . about those holes in the wheels . . . it’s actually JPL . . . in morse code.”

A secret message

Later, I chatted with another tour guide who had been at JPL for decades, and I thought it was funny/interesthing how he had been instructed by the JPL engineers to pretty much ignore the holes in the wheels/pretend not to know what they were when visitors asked about them…at least, until Curiosity had left Earth; only then was he allowed to talk about them.

Another treat of the day was stopping by the clean room where the Mars 2020 rover and all its accessories (such as aeroshell) was being built. I learned that the white suits worn by people inside the clean room are called “bunny suits” — and that it gets uncomfortable pretty quick wearing those. Not only are there several layers to the outfit, a minimum of 2 pairs of gloves must be worn at all times, and no jewelry, makeup, or deodorant is allowed. And don’t let the low 60’s temperature fool you–the humidity is kept at a ridiculously high level of 43%–to avoid static shock.

Assembling the Mars 2020 Rover

On a totally side note, after learning about the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, I’ve decided moon names also make excellent character names, and may be looking toward them for future character name inspirations . . . (I mean seriously, Ganymede, Io, Europa, Callisto, Elara . . .)

The next day we woke up even earlier (5 am wakeup call everyone!) to visit the Armstrong Flight Center. Security was pretty tight and took a while to get through, since it was located within a military base. Luckily, I managed to snag some coffee before the tour began to wake myself up. I loved the demo at the fiber optics lab (and got to meet some of the Armstrong interns who are actually now at Ames to visit), checking out the life support branch (aka parachutes and ejection seats galore), getting a close-up look of a drone, and even flying on two of the simulators. I particularly loved the co-pilot setup, where you have to work with in tandem with another person to land the plane. We ended the day at Armstrong with a trip to a massive hangar.

Armstrong Hangar

Next stop: The Spaceship Company! A quick 1 hour jaunt later, I was standing front of the White Knight and the spaceship Unity. The people there were incredibly friendly and there was a very distinct vibe at TSC. Where Armstrong definitely had the “military feel”, TSC had more of that “open” vibe–there was a lofted, open-area work space filled with desks inside the hangar, and everyone seemed to know each other (which, fair enough, since this is a fairly young company).

The White Knight is definitely one of the most interesting planes I have ever seen, featuring a two-fuselage feature with one verrrrry long wing. I wasn’t able to snap a picture, but do a quick google image search and you’ll see what I mean. The spaceship is attached in between the two fuselages. Did you know that the windows are only painted on the left fuselage of the White Knight? The fuselage is also empty on the left side, so that it can be filled with cargo. The right fuselage is where the pilots sit. A fun background story about Why The Pilots Are In the Right Fuselage: there was quite a debate about which side the pilots should be in, and both the Right Siders and Left Siders presented very valid points. But then, one of the pilot stated, “I want to see the spaceship release”, and that pretty much settled the issue. Since an airplane pilot traditionally sits on the left side of the cockpit (it’s the reverse for a helicopter–don’t ask me why), that means in order to see the Unity release (which is secured between the two fuselages), the pilot must be in the right fuselage.

Ad astra!

Our day concluded by continuing the tradition of grabbing dinner at the Hometown Buffet on the way back to Mountain View. While I can’t say much about their desserts, the main courses were yummy enough and at a reasonable price. Though everyone agreed the bathrooms smelled like wet crayons.

In conclusion, WOW, what a trip! I feel so fortunate to have partaken on an adventure like this ❤

Ratings and recommendations

Mariposa Grove: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ | 30 – 60 minutes | Free
Los Pepe’s Taco Truck: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ | 15 – 30 minutes | $
Leo Carrillo State Park: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ | 1 – 4 hours | $
Malibu Farm Cafe: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ | 40 – 90 minutes | $$$
Mariasol: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ | 40 – 90 minutes | $$
La Brea Tar Pits (w/o museum): ⭐️⭐️⭐️ | 30 – 60 minutes | Free
Blue Plate Taco: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ | 30 – 90 minutes | $$
Griffith Observatory: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ | 1 – 3 hours | Free (or $ for show tickets)
Six Flags Magic Mountain: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ | All day | $$$
Hometown Buffet: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ | 30 – 90 minutes | $

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