One of her first questions for scientists was about Mars’ current climate.
“It’s cold,” said Fuk Li, director of the Mars Exploration Directorate, who explained that scientists are investigating how the planet transitioned from a warm and wet climate to one that is cold and dry.
“What’s your best guess?” Feinstein asked to laughs from the workers.
The senator spent the next 20 minutes inquiring about the planet’s habitability, volcanoes, caves and dust storms. She watched with wonder as workers showed her a video depicting the rover Curiosity's landing on Mars, gasping as the one-ton vehicle touched down on the surface of the planet.
“Wow!” she said. “Those are good tires!”
She also viewed the footage of the engineers and scientists in Mission Control reacting when they found out Curiosity landed on Mars Aug. 5 at 10:32 p.m.
“Oh my!” she said. “You can’t help it. It’s moving.”
When Feinstein was introduced to engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, the famed “JPL Mohawk Guy,” she nearly mistook him for a musician.
“Do you play musical instruments?” she asked, generating guffaws from a small group of scientists and media.
“I actually play the wake-up songs every morning,” he joked. “No, I’m a flight director.”
“So you tell that thing what to do?” she asked.
He replied that he does -- sometimes.
“OK, keep up the good work,” she said, “and good luck with the hair.”
Before she left the campus, Feinstein told a crowd of more than 400 JPL workers that they should be able to continue working on missions to Mars if “Congress does its job.”
President Obama's proposed 2013 NASA cuts planetary exploration funding by nearly $300 million. Two pending appropriations bills from the House and Senate aim to restore as much as $100 million of the budget. The overall NASA budget is relatively unchanged from this year.
Feinstein said it’s unlikely that the budget will be sorted out before the election, echoing what Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said earlier this month.
“We are at a critical time,” she said. “There is so much uncertainty, with respect to the budget. I can’t say that JPL isn’t going to feel the belt tightening.”
She promised to do her best to restore the planetary science budget and spoke about why she thinks investing in the space agency is important.
“I have so many questions in my mind," she said. "Are there other galaxies? Is time an artificial concept? What’s really out there that we can’t see?”
"All of these things that can be added to man’s knowledge," she said.
-- Tiffany Kelly, Times Community News