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Solving Problems at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory with Dan Goods

Jun 23, 2022

Dan Goods

Season 3 Episode 10

In our final episode of season three, we get to meet one of the coolest problem solvers out there in the world, Dan Goods. His life mission is to help scientists think through their thinking at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. 

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Jens Bringsjord

In our final episode of Season three, we get to meet one of the coolest problem solvers out there in the world. His mission is to help scientists think through their thinking at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.



Dan Goods

I'm just really interested in solving problems and hopefully doing it in a way that has some poetry, something that that moves you. And so that's why I love is whenever you can move somebody, and you feel like you've done something good for the day.



Jens Bringsjord

That's JPL's, the studio director and leader of the Extraordinary Team of creatives transforming complex concepts into meaningful stories that can be universally understood. The studio's work is seen in public spaces, art museums and as even in outer space. Dan has also received numerous awards, including NASA's Exceptional Public Service Award. Growing up, Dan never imagined working at a place like JPL.



Dan Goods

Though I was not like your star student in high school. I slept through a couple of classes, and I just I didn't really have a whole lot of passion. When I was in high school. But I had been interested in fantasy football when I was in high school. And it was a time when you couldn't print out pictures.



Dan Goods

Like it was really like. And there's this place where I grew up or where I was living, but it was the first place I'd ever seen where you could scan a picture in and print it out. And it was like, oh, my goodness, I can't believe you could do that. And of course, it costs like $150. And, you know, it was really, you know, a lot of equipment and that sort of thing.



Dan Goods

But I volunteered my time there. I was just like, hey, you know, and I knew the people and they said, sure, you know, we need something to, you know, do stuff around here and be that impaired. And so, I was like, that's cool. And so, I started making all these newsletters and logos and I didn't really know what all that meant.



Dan Goods

I didn't know. I didn't know what graphic design was or anything like that. But there's one night when we kind of go outside that the owner would go smoke outside, and I would I'd kind of stand upwind or down upwind and one day he said, you know, have you ever thought about going to an art school?



Dan Goods

And I was like, No. You know, like that was the last thing ever in my mind of going to art school. And he had been a comic book artist and he said, you know, you should think about that. Yeah, I can see that you like to put things together. And so, I was like, Oh, yeah, whatever. And I went home.



Dan Goods

And on my bed was a postcard from a little art school up in Seattle. And literally six months later, I was having never taken an art class in my life. I ended up going to this art school and I ended up realizing what graphic design was and communication and then I freelanced for a couple of years up in Seattle, and then I got laid off and I was trying to figure out What am I going to do?



Dan Goods

I was either going to join the Peace Corps, start a teahouse, or I was going to go to Art Centre College of Design because I felt like I needed to be better at being a graphic designer than I was. That's where I wanted to go. And but I couldn't afford it. And so, I but I ended up getting a scholarship and ended up going there.



Dan Goods

And so there you know, when I when I got there, I thought, I'm going to I'm going to I'm going to be in branding and I'm going to work at one of these big branding companies and or work at an ad agency or something like that. Yeah, a couple semesters into art centre, there was a speaker series class, and anybody could sit in on, on the speakers and, and they had this guy who is an artist that was working with scientists at Caltech.



Dan Goods

And I was like, oh, that sounds interesting. And I wandered in and, and it just blew me away. I just couldn't believe what he was doing. And, and it wasn't, it wasn't so much that he was just, like, making their stuff look pretty, but he was helping them think in ways that maybe they hadn't thought about before. And it made the data and things that they were studying much clearer and more compelling and, and, and help them do better science.



Dan Goods

And I was like, this is amazing. I want to do this. But, you know, how are they going to do that? Well, eventually there was this opportunity to do an internship at Caltech and from four art centre students. I was like, this is amazing. So, I called them up and it just so happened, the right things happened.



Dan Goods

So, I got there, and I had just gotten done doing this crazy project where for a little tiny grocery store where I was told to go play. And I ended up making these sculptures out of soda pop bottles because the whole store, in sort of essence, was the bay. Everything was in a glass bottle. And so, I love the way in which you when you blow on a glass bottle, it makes it sound right.



Dan Goods

And so, I ended up figuring out how to stick them on a taco truck stand so as it would drive along and make music. And I made a pipe organ, and I threw stuff. He looked at that and he said, you’re going to do the same thing. You're going to help us try to figure out how to steal more data in in our projects.



Dan Goods

And I was like, I don't know what you're talking about. And then he then he said, you’re going to swim like an otter for half an hour a day. And I was like, Well, because I'm not a swimmer. And that was I was kind of more from the colder areas and so, but we'd go swim every day and am since I wasn't a swimmer like everything under the water was new to me.



Dan Goods

And you'd get all the, the light ray light rays, the transparency and iridescence. And he was like, okay, well, you got to figure out how to use transparency in iridescence to help express more information. And they were working on something called the Mouse Atlas, and it was before Google Earth or anything like that. And basically, the idea is that they have this scanner that they can scan before a mouse is born at like one day after conception, two days, three days, four and five all the way up.



Dan Goods

I think it's in a couple of weeks when they were born. And so, they would have this atlas of a mouse growing over time, you know, inside the world, which was crazy. And then and then what they want to do is sort of attach all these papers they've been written about the different areas. And so basically, I try to figure out how to use transparency and iridescence as ways of expressing this.



Dan Goods

All this, this, these papers. And, and when I was done with that, I was like, I want to work here, you know, like where I want to work at a research centre. But, you know, art school isn't like they're people to help you find jobs are not really set up for helping you find a research centre and I had been in all the right places like I got to go to the TED conference and meet all these amazing people a long time ago.



Dan Goods

And because this is 20 years ago and no one would give me a chance and then one day I, I went to the was it the president of Art Centre? And I was like, hey, I was valedictorian. Can you help me get a job at Caltech? Because it was good friends with the president of Caltech and he's like, Yeah, you know, you don't want to go there.



Dan Goods

I'm going to JPL in a couple of days if you come, come with me. And so, I ended up getting to meet the director of JPL, and he gave me like 2 seconds to sell myself. And I said, wouldn’t it be amazing to have artists involved in brainstorming future missions and funny stories that he said, yes, that's great.



Dan Goods

And then he walked away because he had another meeting and then that was it. So, I ended up sending my resume, but I send my resume not in in a letter, but in like next day air because people will open that right. And I couldn't do it that day. And so, my wife did it, but they didn't have any the normal envelope.



Dan Goods

They had these gigantic envelopes. And so, she sent my resume and to the director of JPL. And then yeah, then he sent it on to some people and this is probably the maybe the most important moment was the guy was like, well, maybe you could do animations for us. And because they wanted to this person worked where they're just beginning to imagine what a future mission might be like.



Dan Goods

So, there's, you know, there's no hardware or, you know, they haven't even sold it, they're not even funded for it or they're just trying to pitch the idea. And I was like, you know, I don't know how to do that, but sure, I'll do that. But this model project is like what I'm passionate about, and that was like a huge risk for me because we just had a baby, and my wife wasn't going to work, and I didn't have any money and I had all these loans and stuff like that.



Dan Goods

And but the most amazing thing ever is that he took a risk, and he did the best thing ever. At least he was. It was amazing that he had the position where he could say, yes, I'll give you six months. But then he said, Go does whatever it is that you do, because I don't really understand what it gets.



Dan Goods

And that was just you know, that was amazing because if he would have told me, you know, I want you to animate something, I want you to do a poster. That's what I would have done, right? And that's what I would have been kind of known for. And that's, you know, I would have stayed with him like a box of what people think you should be doing.



Dan Goods

And that was such a gift that I was given to kind of take six months. And the things that I did were not graphic design at all. The first thing that they were that he said, go around to these people who are working on future projects and see what they're working on and do something and people that were like most fascinating to me were people that were finding planets around other stars.



Dan Goods

And, you know, when you see sci fi movies, it's of course, that happens all the time. But like, this was real. Like, we're really, really finding planets around other stars. At that time, they'd only found a few hundred. And then they said that we are looking for an earth like planet. I was like, nah, you know? And then they would give me all these numbers and they would.



Dan Goods

They would because they're numbers of people, right? And they'd say, you know, there's hundreds of billions of stars and there's hundreds of billions of galaxies and there's something called the Drake Equation. And if you type in all these numbers in the Drake equation, it's like, well, how many planets how many stars do you think are out there?



Dan Goods

How many stars with Earth like how many stars with planets might be out there? How many stars with that have earth like planets? And then how many might have life? And even with like small numbers on all those different things, it still should be there still should be thousands and thousands of civilization lines out in the universe that was like, Oh my goodness, that's insane.



Dan Goods

So, I have this grain of sand. And I went to the shop, and they have this amazing, amazing shop. And I was like, hey, could you drill a hole like a 10th the size of a grain of sand? And there and he looked at me and the next guy was ideal, let's do it. And they really, really did have or do have this carbide drill bit.



Dan Goods

And it was a 10th of a millimetre, and they drilled a hole into the grain of sand. And so that hole represented where at that moment we had looked for planets and already found thousands of them. And then over time, we found like 3 to 4000 planets have mostly been found within that little, tiny area of our galaxy.



Dan Goods

And that's and that's with poor technology, you know, like we can't find, you know, what we what we think is there, let alone the rest of the galaxy and then the ideas that have you need sick. Well, when I did it, you needed six rooms of sand to show all the other galaxies that we knew about. Well, ten years later.



Dan Goods

And so, they were like it’s 60 rooms of sand. So anyways, I started to do something like that and then I did, I did some other like video projection installation things and it and suddenly, they were like, well, what does this person doing, you know, different than what we've been doing. So, I had this opportunity to kind of like be an artist and to be, you know, I never really thought of myself as an as an artist with a Capella.



Dan Goods

You know, I want to make things that were beautiful, but I never really thought of myself that way. But the director of JPL, he would call me the artist in residence. And I was like, I don't know, I feel a little awkward with that, but that seems like a kind of do whatever I want, like dumping that character.



Dan Goods

So, so I kind of had that mindset and then someone else they said, hey, you know, we're working on a proposal for a mission to Jupiter. Do you could you. We need a cover for our proposal, would you? You know, it sounds like that might be something that you could do. And I was like, oh, man, I don't want to do graphic design again.



Dan Goods

I want to do this other stuff and then I was like, This guy's cool. And, and turned out we hit it off with all the team members and ended up doing the cover. But then also just like that, what that did was that helped the whole team like think about the same thing as they all in proposing a mission, you have all these different people, some of them are early working part time on this thing on the side and other people, it's their life work.



Dan Goods

And so, you really need the whole team to be thinking about the exact same thing. And we ended up, I mean, my buddy David Delgado, who went to the same school I went to, we ended up helping him pitch the mission, which is like a which is like an all-day eight-hour presentation type of thing. And they ended up winning the mission and Juno, which is at Jupiter right now, it's been going around for years.



Dan Goods

And when you see these insane, beautiful images of Jupiter, it's because of this mission. And so, you know, I learned something through that process of like do the small things, do what you do small things. And it's okay because, you know, maybe something else will come of it. And just through that process, that that also allowed people to go, well, he does those weird art installations, but he also, like, helped this one $1,000,000,000 mission, you know, like maybe he has more value.



Megan Luedke

It took him over eight years of hard work before they let him hire someone to accompany him as part of the studio.



Dan Goods

It's interesting because I know that like within that period, most people in the creative industries have probably had four different jobs. And but JPL is a special place. It's not too often that you get to be around people doing one-of-a-kind things and, you know, far off places. And so, I wanted to stick with it.



Dan Goods

And I had had interns, I had freelancer work with freelancers. But then I finally got to hire someone after eight years, and then suddenly, I got to hire more and more people. And the way it works here is that, or at least in my case, is that I am I am a full-time employee, but it's almost like you are a freelancer within this little city.



Dan Goods

So, I must have an account number for every single project I work on. So, someone must pay for me. They must want me enough that they're going to use their money on me versus someone else. And that's hard, right? And but over time, I think people realize that, oh, they kind of bring a different perspective.



Dan Goods

They're helping me understand what I'm doing differently. And they also make things that look awesome. Right. And, and so suddenly, I was able to build a team and things used to be very scattered at JPL. There were people doing web design in one area and people doing graphic design stuff in another area and then other are my team kind of doing another stuff, a different area.



Dan Goods

Now we're all under one umbrella, so now we're, we're under what's called design lab and, and which I think makes us a much stronger design creative presence at JPL. So, under this umbrella is a Web development team. Another team is a print production, graphic design team. And then there's my team, the studio.



Megan Luedke

People at JPL come to the studio when they want to do something that they haven't done before.



Dan Goods

We kind of have these two different areas that we talk about. One is we talk about sneaking up on learning. And so, the idea of creating something beautiful and mysterious and maybe it grabs your attention that you didn't expect. And then once you are grabbed, you know, once you once you kind of go in, you want to ask questions and you're sort of primed for learning.



Dan Goods

And that that includes like doing art installations. It includes we do a lot of renovations around the lab. There's lots of old buildings, and they're kind of renovating it and sort of trying to help the general culture of the lab sort of how cool things round to inspire you. And then the other thing that we, we do is we call it helping people think through their thinking.



Dan Goods

And that's where designers are good at asking questions and sort of poking and prodding and going, you know, is that really what you want to do or is that really what you're trying to say? Or is that being you, too, are both nodding your head, but are you both thinking the same thing? Maybe not, no. And there's not always someone in the room to ask those kinds of questions.



Dan Goods

And so, we facilitate a lot of brainstorms and workshops and visioning sessions where, you know, some people will be like, well, we got funding, we're going to do this thing, but we don't really know who we are, you know? And so, in a way, it's, you know, helping them brand themselves. And but hopefully at the end of the day, you know, they see who they are in a different way.



Dan Goods

And they come together as a team in a stronger, unified fashion. So, I think what my favourite thing is, when back when people used to come into the studio, you know, we're out of work now for the most part, but some people would literally come in well, some people will come in and say, I want this. You know, they want that.



Dan Goods

But then there's a very number of other people come in and they're like, you know, I don't know why I'm here, but I feel like I should be. And that's my favourite moment, you know, because then then it's open. And I think that's really what it is when people don't really know what they want and they're trying to figure it out.



Dan Goods

They might want to do something different, you know, and then they come and knock on our door and, you know, maybe we collaborate with other groups with them. Design Lab to help solve the problems.



Jens Bringsjord

Today, the studio is a people strong and multifaceted in a variety of skills and expertise within the realm of creativity.



Dan Goods

Some people come from advertising backgrounds, some come from illustration, design. One person is a producer. Some people have had backgrounds and music. And so, it's you know, they come from the creative worlds, you know, or the creative content world. So, I suppose I'm sorry, I don't like to say the creative worlds because I truly believe that creativity is a human trait and that we are all creative and you can be a creative, you know, whatever.



Dan Goods

So, I don't want to I always feel bad about that. The thing that I hate is when people say, well, I'm not creative and what they think they really mean is that they're not artistic and that's a different type of thing. So, but yeah, so they, they come from, you know, design or advertising or various types of things, but they, they're all very different.



Dan Goods

They all have very different skill sets, and which is great. So, we can sort of handle a lot of different things, whether it's a team that's trying to talk about going to Jupiter or it's the facilities, people trying to figure out a new traffic flow or something like that.



Jens Bringsjord

The studio certainly stays busy. Among the current eight-member team, they have at least 14 different projects going on. During any given time.



Dan Goods

They'll range from little projects that take a week or two and just like one person does it on the side, it runs well. Two projects, a couple of projects that go on for a couple of years and take up a lot more resources. But each the way the team works is that each person on the team is sort of the creative director of whatever project they're working on.



Dan Goods

And so, their role is to make sure it all gets done and the quality is high and, and work with freelancers, if need be, and bring in, you know, the right sort of talent. And I'm there to sort of help them along, make sure that they ask the right questions and if they need connections with people. And just, you know, sometimes I might have insight into what the lab may be wanting to project in the future and stuff like that.



Jens Bringsjord

Juno is NASA's space probe orbiting the planet Jupiter. It was built by Lockheed Martin and is operated by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station back in 2011 and entered polar orbit on July 5th, 2016, to begin scientific investigation of Jupiter.



Dan Goods

The rocket that we had, the launch on was not big enough to go straight to Jupiter. It had to go out towards Mars and then come back and then get really close to the earth and then use the gravity of the earth to slingshot us out to Jupiter, which is cool because, you know, it's not too often that you send something off and then it comes back and then it goes even further, which is cool.



Dan Goods

And so, we had been trying to figure out is there a way in which we could do something that would do something when it comes by, right? Like and is there a way to use the spacecraft, you know, in some interesting way and. And one of the guys that had one of the instruments on the spacecraft had been a ham radio operator.



Dan Goods

And he was like, well, you know, this instrument can pick up a lot of information, but it also picks up the band of which ham radio operators work in. And if we had enough people signalling at the same exact time, then we could hear it and we're like, Wow, that's fascinating. I mean, I don't know, a ham radio like to do that anymore.



Dan Goods

And so, it's old school, right? But it turns out like there's this big, huge community of these people out there and they're very rabid, you know, they're very into what they're doing. Right. And so, we came up with this idea of will. We can't have everyone like, you know, like ham radios fast, BBC, TV, you know, but we would never be able to get lots of people to do that.



Dan Goods

At the same time. And so, we thought, well, what if what if each dip was like 30 seconds? So, it's like a and then you lift off and then then you can just speed that up and then you could hear it, right? And so, then we were like, well, what would we say? You know, and, and then also, if you look at the, the ham radio letters and stuff like that, you know, you got lots of bits and dots and stuff like that.



Dan Goods

And to say anything it would take a long time and that we came up with a high. It was like Juno's just going to say hi as it flies by, or we're going to say hi as it flies by. And so, we ended up there, ended up being thousands of people around the world all doing this at the same exact time.



Dan Goods

What I loved about that was that we were using a spacecraft in a way that it was not meant to be used. And we were working with people that maybe never really get all that much attention. Right. And they and those people absolutely loved it. You know, they felt so special that they were doing something together as a big group, sending a message.



Dan Goods

And at that moment was there was a shutdown in the government. And so, like it was just cool that something beautiful and special happened. And then when you hear that beep, beep, beep, you know, it's wild to think that that's thousands of people all signal at the same time. So, so that that was like my favourite because we got to use things in a different way.



Megan Luedke

And to Dan, one thing is clear that there are all sorts of people you need to be involved with because you can't explore space by yourself.



Dan Goods

You need all sorts of different perspectives and just so happens that our perspective is needed as well. And, and so know there are the there are two sides to this one. One is that helping people think through their thinking where just like when they're two or three people in a room and they're all called scientists, we're all called engineer.



Dan Goods

You think like, you know, you hear this term all the time. Scientists say, well, I always laugh when I hear that because every scientist, I talk to says something slightly different, you know, and they're all arguing about something or other. And but they're all unique. They're all individual. And they all studied something very, you know, like they got deep into one little area, right.



Dan Goods

And so, a space scientist and a geologist and a volcanologist, you know, they all they don't speak the same language. Right. And they and so what's fascinating is that when you need someone to be able to see the different languages that people are speaking and go, oh, I see. They're speaking different languages. Maybe let's make sure they're talking about the same thing.



Dan Goods

And so that's one area that is super, super important. And sometimes that's done through a picture, right? And so, you have people in the room, and someone says something and they're all like nodding their head. And then you draw it up on the wall. And then two of them are nodding no. No one's nodding yes. And then they're like, oh, that's what you're thinking.



Dan Goods

Okay, that's not what I was thinking. Right?



Jens Bringsjord

Dan recognizes that there are differences within the disciplines of both art and science, but there are also similarities to him. Both disciplines investigate questions, try to uncover answers within the process, and pose potentially new questions to push boundaries further. In a specific topic.



Dan Goods

There's a sense of rigor and maybe community critique, I suppose that is involved in both. But like in science, like you must have to be repeatable, and people must be able to do the same experiment and show that it got the same answer. That's not, you know, like I think in our world we don't want it to be repeatable, right?



Dan Goods

We want to do something that is one of gone. Nobody's done it before. And but there are still there needs to be a sense of rigor. Some of the rigor is just the how do you how do you manifest in the production of something? There is a rigor of like making sure that everything is done right and the ELA grading as well and you know, the surface materials, whatever you're using is the right material.



Dan Goods

Whereas like the scientist is trying to make sure that their instruments are precise and, and that there's no noise. Like, I think an artist likes noise, you know, like they're like, I made it too perfect and, and we messed something up and that made it better. And the science is maybe trying to get rid of some of that noise.



Dan Goods

But, you know, the good scientists are the ones that go, oh, I wonder what that noise is. Maybe that noise is meaningful, you know, and maybe I should investigate that. And so, I think there's, there's a lot of similarities. And I will, you know, I'll meet scientists and creative directors that are both like big picture, like, you know, crazy.



Dan Goods

While, you know, some of the scientists I've met here can blow any creative director out of the water just with their ability to go places in their mind that most people don't and are willing to go beyond the safe spaces that it's been neat to see design go from something that was just sort of like a frivolous sort of thing to now like we need designers in everything that we do and at the beginning.



Dan Goods

So, before we get too far along and, you know, it's, it's I've been here 18 years, so I'm there's like 6000 people at JPL. There's some of them there that that have heard the gospel and try to live by it. And so that's been neat to see. And so, it has been neat that over the last few years, we've been able to meet with other people at other NASA's centres and there are creative people in all these different places.



Jens Bringsjord

And so, we wrap up our third season with the hope that you have been inspired to persevere in whatever you do in your life, whether it's designing for the space industry or any other industry, be reminded that great things come from people working with others because we can't do everything on our own.



Megan Luedke

By collaborating, connecting, and being excited each day to learn new things, we will continue to grow on this little blue dot in the vastness of space, supporting each of our unique and exciting lives.



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