When NASA’s Perseverance rover gently touched down on the surface of Mars on Thursday after seven months in space, it was an Indian-American named Dr. Swati Mohan, who first confirmed that the rover had survived a particularly tricky plunge into the Martian atmosphere.
“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” a calm and composed bindi-clad Mohan announced soon after the rover landed, as cheers erupted in NASA’s mission control room in California.
Mohan, who successfully spearheaded the development of attitude control and the landing system for the rover, was among the team of scientists behind the historic mission. The attitude control system is responsible for pointing the rover in the direction it needs to be and also helps figure out where the spacecraft is oriented in space.
The Cornell graduate has been associated with the Perseverance Mars Mission since its inception and has been part of a number of other NASA missions over the years. Notably, she also worked on NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn.
On Thursday, Mohan made history yet again, when she steered the controls and landing system of the rover and navigated a rather difficult touchdown, while the whole world watched with bated breath.
The NASA scientist first emigrated from India to the United States when she was just a year old. Most of her childhood was spent in the Northern Virginia-Washington DC area. Mohan traces her love for space back to the American science fiction series ‘Star Trek’, which she first watched at the age of 9. While she wanted to become a paediatrician until she was 16, she later decided to become an engineer and pursue her interest in space exploration.
Not only is Mohan a pivotal player in the effort to determine whether there was ever life on the red planet; she’s also a reflection of the progress NASA has made in reflecting the nation it represents.
Her passion for space started with ‘Star Trek’
Mohan has been interested in space ever since she saw her first “Star Trek” television episode at age 9. It opened up her world to the beauty and expanse of the universe.
“I remember thinking ‘I want to do that. I want to find new and beautiful places in the universe,'” she recalled in a Q&A on NASA’s website. “The vastness of space holds so much knowledge that we have only begun to learn.”
Still, she thought she would grow up to become a pediatrician. It wasn’t until she took her first physics class at age 16 that she began considering a career in engineering, which would allow her to follow her childhood dreams of exploring space.
Mohan went on to study mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, followed by a masters degree and doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eventually, she landed at NASA.
Before her work on Perseverance, Mohan was a part of space exploration efforts such as Cassini, a spacecraft that unearthed countless discoveries about Saturn, and GRAIL, a mission that sent twin spacecraft around the moon.
She started working on the Mars 2020 mission in 2013, and ultimately became the lead engineer for guidance, navigation and controls operations. She helmed the mission’s attitude control system, which helps make sure the spacecraft is heading in the direction it needs to be.
“During the cruise phase heading toward Mars, our job is to figure out how we are oriented, make sure the spacecraft is pointed correctly in space (solar arrays to sun, antenna to Earth), and maneuver the spacecraft to get it where we want to go,” Mohan explained in a NASA Q&A. “During entry, descent, and landing on Mars, GN&C determines the position of the spacecraft and commands the maneuvers to help it land safely.”
And on Thursday, she was one of two voices heard in the control room and around the world — explaining major milestones in NASA’s first mission to search for signs of life on another planet.
“I’ve been on Perseverance longer than I’ve been at any school,” Mohan told the newspaper Florida Today. “I’ve been on Perseverance longer than my younger daughter is alive. It’s just taken up such a large portion of my life for so long.”
This was a diverse mission
It wasn’t just Mohan, either. The Perseverance rover mission was diverse by a number of measures: race, gender and sexuality. That the team behind the historic spacecraft included folks like landing lead Allen Chen, and engineers such as Moogega Cooper, Cj Giovingo and Gregorio Villar, shows it was representative of the nation’s demographics.
That array of names and faces is a sign of the progress NASA has made since it was founded in 1958. White men were long seen as the face of the space exploration program, despite significant contributions from women and people of color over the years. The agency had only ever selected White men as astronauts until 1978, when it admitted a class that included the first female, first African American and first Asian American astronauts.
There is still progress to be made, but NASA’s workforce now looks much more like the nation. Of the more than 17,000 people who work for NASA, 72% are White, 12% are Black, 8% are Asian American or Pacific Islander, 7% are Hispanic or Latino, 1% are American Indian or Alaska Native and less than 1% are more than one race, according to agency data