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Location of NASA's JPL is a bit of a curiosity

August 9, 2012 |  7:59 am

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If we can land a rover on Mars, surely we can identify the city where NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is located. Right?

When it came to The Times' recent coverage of Mars rover Curiosity, reader Sabrina Peck of Pasadena wasn't so sure.

"My husband has been a JPL engineer in Pasadena since 1979. Yes, Pasadena: Zip 91109," she wrote in an email. "Why do your writers assert that JPL is in La Cañada Flintridge?"

The short answer: Because it is.

But it wasn't always, and that's where the confusion comes in.

The story starts in 1936 with three scientists experimenting with rockets. That led to the establishment of a center for rocket science on the Caltech campus, in Pasadena. In 1940, when the explosions became a bit too loud and dangerous for the middle of the city, a facility was built in the foothills above Pasadena. And in 1943, the site was dubbed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

From 1943 forward, JPL was, for all intents and purposes, in Pasadena, and it had a Pasadena mailing address.

Then in 1976, residents of JPL's neighboring community voted to incorporate and became La Cañada Flintridge. The city limits included JPL's campus.

But  JPL kept its Pasadena mailing address -- which suits the La Cañada post office just fine. The Pasadena post office, which serves a city of 140,000 residents, is better equipped to manage the facility's mail than La Cañada, which serves a city of 20,000.

(In 2010, a postal carrier wrote and implored The Times to stop reporting that JPL was in La Cañada because it resulted in a flood to the city's lone post office.)

JPL's website notes the dichotomy. The mailing address is listed as 4800 Oak Grove Drive,
Pasadena, CA 91109. But this is what it says under "Directions": Street address for use in online map searches: 4800 Oak Grove Drive, La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011

The issue seems to come up each time JPL makes national news. A 1997 article by Times staff writer Bob Pool carries the wonderful headline, "We've Found Mars, but Where is JPL?"

Presumably, the mailing address is what guides national media, which have focused attention on JPL amid Curiosity's mission to Mars. A headline Wednesday declared: "Curiosity's Martian Playground is Technically Located in Pasadena"

No. Technically, it's in La Cañada Flintridge.

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: JPL's campus. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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