Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

NIF Tour Guides Show Their TargetsTour coordinator CaT Vogen and tour guides (left to right) Jamie King, Fred Holdener, and Dave Mathisen show off the targets they use at the start of each tour. Credit: Jason Laurea

It’s one thing to read about NIF in the newspaper or on the NIF&PS website, or to watch videos showing how NIF works. But there’s no substitute for seeing NIF’s giant laser bays and massive Target Chamber in person.

“Our duty as tour guides is to blow them away with the science, which isn’t hard to do considering the amazing things that go on here. We want to leave them inspired and feeling a sense of awe. This also helps them to understand how well their tax dollars are being spent.”

—NIF/LLNL Certified Laser Safety Officer Jamie King

That’s why more than 91,600 people visited and toured the world’s largest laser system between 2003 and the middle of 2019, in more than 8,000 separate tours. The visitors ranged from school children to military generals and admirals, members of Congress, presidential Cabinet members, CEOs, movie stars and entertainers, news reporters and photographers, and even a princess. These visits were made possible by the work of dozens of NIF volunteer tour guides and safety escorts, who take time out from their busy schedules to spread the word about NIF’s science and missions.

Though the age range of tour visitors is wide, having the opportunity to reach students of all ages is a tour-guide favorite. The guides explain what the Laboratory does in the broader context of national security and stockpile stewardship. And being inside an enormous laser facility is a straightforward way to resonate with visitors.

Thailand Princess Tours NIFHer Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of the Kingdom of Thailand examines a model of the NIF target capsule during a February 2014 tour of NIF. She was escorted on the tour by Acting LLNL Director Brett Knapp (right) and NIF&PS Principal Associate Director Jeff Wisoff. In Thailand, Princess Sirindhorn is referred to as the “Princess of Technology” and is a strong supporter of science and technology advancement and education.

Tours are limited to 15 visitors and are held an average of about 10 tours a week. For some busy weeks, the number of tours surpasses 20, so there’s a high demand for tour guides and a need to orchestrate the flux of visitors within NIF without interrupting its operations.

“It’s just so cool when we get to show the public what we do. Everybody, including me, turns into a twelve-year-old kid and goes, ‘Wow.’”

—NIF Tour Guide Dave Mathisen

“Understanding the interests, background, and needs of a visitor group is also important,” said CaT Vogen, who is in her fifth year as NIF tour program coordinator (Vogen was preceded by Renee Coppin and Emily Brannon). “All the tour guides cover the same messages about NIF’s missions and how the laser functions end-to-end, but each of them brings unique specialties, approaches, and experiences. I try to match them up to give the visitors the best experience possible.”

Eighty-eight employees are currently certified to conduct tours, along with 16 safety escorts. Volunteers must complete two Web courses and “shadow” a few tours to become certified.

Graph Showing NIF Tours by Year
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Graph Showing NIF Visitors by Year
Click to enlarge.
(Left) NIF tours by fiscal year. (Right) NIF visitors by fiscal year. NIF connects to all of LLNL’s directorates and embodies the full range of work performed across the Laboratory. Tour guides translate this integration as they explain what the Laboratory does in the broader context of national security and stockpile stewardship.

NIF tours are a clear win all the way around. The Laboratory has the opportunity to open a window into its vital missions and cutting-edge science; the public gets an up-close view of the inner workings of a world-leading research facility; and tour guides continue to make this connection possible as NIF continues to advance the boundaries of science. Those interested in becoming a tour guide should contact Vogen at

Students Tour NIFStudents tour NIF as part of the White House “My Brother’s Keeper Initiative” in August 2015. Energy Secretary Perry Tours NIFEnergy Secretary Rick Perry hands off a target to Paul Gillie for a NIF experiment during his March 2018 tour of NIF. Congressman Swalwall Tours NIFNIF Operations Manager Bruno Van Wonterghem (right) describes the NIF shot process to Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., during his visit to NIF in May 2015 to witness a NIF experiment. Looking on are NIF Director Mark Herrmann (left) and NIF&PS Principal Associate Director Jeff Wisoff. Optics Manufacturers Tour NIFTayyab Suratwala, Optics and Materials Science & Technology program director, conducts a tour of the NIF Target Bay for attendees at the American Precision Optics Manufacturers Association Laser Tech Workshop in October 2018. Science Journalists Tour NIFNIF&PS Principal Associate Director Jeff Wisoff briefs a group of science reporters who toured NIF in October 2017. They were among more than 1,300 registered attendees from more than 70 countries who attended the World Conference of Science Journalists.

More Information:

“Tour Guides Put NIF’s Best Foot Forward”

“NIF Captures the Popular Imagination”