NASA’s women engineers: From STEM to Red Planet

April 5, 2021

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When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in July 1969, three African-American women mathematicians were the human computers behind the space capsule’s feat. But they remained hidden figures with a shadowed glory because they were black and they were women. The giant leap for womankind still had to come.

Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn had to fight overt instances of dismissive superiors at work to become NASA’s steer-leaders, launching America into spaceflight primacy over the erstwhile USSR.

Much later, accolades came their way. Never mind that justice delayed is albeit justice denied.

2021. A long way since, meet NASA’s women engineers Dr. Swati Mohan, Vandana “Vandi” Verma, Zainab Nagin Cox and Diana Trujillo. All women of color. Now inked in history because all have a significant role in the Perseverance landing and continued exploration for signs of past life on the red planet. One had a supportive family that backed a STEM higher education choice. Two fought a conservative background each, while one hails from a milieu that could never imagine a girl growing up to drive. Leave alone steer a rover on Mars.

 

The Landing Expert

Dr. Swati Mohan (1983)

Aerospace Engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
Guidance and Controls Operation Lead on NASA Mars 2020

“At age 9, I watched Star Trek and was struck by the beautiful views of the galaxies and outer space. I wanted to be there.”

Born in Bangalore, India, Dr. Mohan’s parents emigrated to the United States when she was one. Most of her childhood was spent in the Washington DC metro area. In interviews post the epic seven month 300 million-mile journey to Mars, Dr. Mohan recorded:

“My parents have been supportive all through. Getting into a good college was the only criteria for them to fund my entire education. It was very expensive but they believed in my passion and that made all the difference.”

Because the pressure of a work-school-work routine was absent, Dr. Mohan was able to avail of the unpaid internships and extra-curricular courses such as satellite coding and design during her undergrad days doing Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University. Shortly after graduation, she was invited to work as a junior engineer on Cassini, NASA’s historic mission to Saturn’s moon Titan.

In 2013, barely three years after completing her PhD, Dr. Mohan became a part of the Perseverance Mission. “My seniors opened the door to NASA’s most heady mission,” she recorded in an interview, adding that diligence and the will to excel are a pre-requisite for anyone looking at STEM soaring their career.

Dr. Mohan narrates that while interested in space and star gazing, she was all set to become a pediatrician.

“I did not know how to fuse my interest and academic choice. Till a Physics class when I was 16. That was a turning point and helped me understand matter, engineering and calculations as the way to space.”

What started as an eight-hour shift, soon gathered steam and turned into a 12-hour work pattern. Hardware testing and probable situations that could be encountered while landing on the Martian terrain were simulated. Ejection from the mother capsule, plunging down the friction of an alien atmosphere and landing onto the target planet were the real test.

Dr. Mohan led the team which developed the “Attitude Control System Terrain Relative Navigation.” In simple words, she led a group of aerospace engineers to craft a technology which enabled Perseverance to scan the area before touchdown in an upright position. Not only did the rover land successfully, it did away with the hitherto experienced glitches caused by slanting or leaning of the study mechanism. Above all, fitted solar panels panned out in a direction such to trap maximum amount of sunlight to power the mission.

Whew! All this made possible by Guidance, Navigation and Controls (GN&C) controlling the maneuvers here on Earth. Dr. Mohan was leading the second-by-nano-second move of the landing during the “seven minutes of terror.” And when, she did announce “Touchdown Confirmed,” the world broke out in jubilation.

In her NASA page, she states:

“It is an honor and privilege to work in such an incredibly motivating environment. All the projects seek to expand human understanding and are almost always first of a kind in some way.”

A mother of two and known as much for her Indian cultural roots, she is every reason to believe that a support system is all needed to back a STEM career for women.

 

Rover’s Robotic Arm Expert

Diana Trujillo Pomerantz (1980)

Aerospace Engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Currently leading a 45-member team behind the Robotic Arm of Perseverance

“The future that I wanted was to explore the stars.”

Feisty, gutsy and loving it all. That is how Diana Trujillo appears. Born in Colombia, she grew up in a country torn apart by narco-terrorism, guerilla insurgencies and a power-hungry elitist political system.

“I grew up with a lot of violence. For me, a safe place was looking up at the sky and the stars.”

Trujillo’s mother left medical school when she came along. Her family was faced with economic hardships which worsened each time political instability rocked the country. Her leanings toward mathematics and the sciences emerged clear but not knowing English was proving to be a disadvantage. In hope of a better future, she set off to an aunt in Miami. Life changed thereon.

“I came to the US not knowing English and with $300 in my pocket. From doing hourly-paying odd jobs to washing the bathrooms, I did all to make ends meet. At the Miami Dade College, where I was studying English, I borrowed a textbook from the math department for a break. It reignited my passion and I decided on pursuing my dreams.”

With confidence in her mathematical prowess and having read about the role of women working in aerospace missions, she enrolled for aerospace engineering at the University of Florida. Here, Trujillo applied for the NASA Academy.

Her selection for the 10-week summer program made her the first Hispanic woman to have qualified for this primary brush with space for promising students. Being part of NASA robots expert Brian Roberts’ team helped her define her forte as robotics in space operations. He convinced her to move to Maryland which offered better prospects of a career in aerospace.

“I need to be the Latina woman that will fulfill the dream of my women. I need to be the Latina woman that will have the life that my mom, great grandma deserved — three generations that couldn’t do what they deserved.”

She graduated from the University of Maryland in 2007 and later that year, joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She served many roles, chief being as architect of the DRT or dust removal tool, to enable shaking dust off the Martian surfaces, for scientists to study deeper.

Each learning experience was only a stepping stone. She enrolled for MS and PhD in Aeronautics/ Astronautics from MIT and while still pursuing the doctorate, was invited to participate in SPHERES. This experiment at the International Space Station conducted from Earth introduced her to the concepts of design and experiments with algorithms for space systems.

The DRT was put into successful action on Curiosity rover’s Mars expedition in 2009. During the same mission, she was also assigned the communication between the spacecraft and scientists on Earth. She is currently heading the robotic arms operations for Perseverance as it looks for signs of past life in the Jezero Crater on Mars.

“Believe in yourself. Don’t second guess it. Write down the skills you are good at. What are the things you love doing and then write a plan. Search for people who have done what you want to do. Find out how they made it happen so you can figure out how to navigate your path. Then put it in a timeline. These things will put you on the right track and keep you on the rails!”

— Quotes from kcet.org

 

Rover’s Engineering Operations Team Chief

Zainab Nagin Cox (1965)

Spacecraft Engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Currently part of Engineering Operations Team working with Perseverance
Conferred NASA Exceptional Service Medal
Asteroid 14601 discovered in 1996 was renamed Nagincox in 2015

“If you really want to go where someone has never been, you want to be with the robots. They truly explore first. There was one place that did that consistently and that was NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

“I am an explorer, engineer and a fighter,” Cox declares. Born in Bangalore, her childhood had a brief chapter in Kuala Lumpur before the family emigrated to the United States. Growing up in Kansas City, where her father was a professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri, she realized the treatment meted out to herself and her sister was far different from what the brothers were handed out.

“At dinnertime, we were expected to help out. My brothers were served and eating was their only role,” she recounts in her NASA page. Her father minced no words when he thought girls were “worthless.” The boys were sent to a middle school known for math and science while the girls were packed off to an arts and humanities specialization school.

“And then I realized that it had to do with being a girl.”

Had it not been for her mother’s encouragement, Cox would probably have lived life in its usual grind. When Star Trek and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos brought alive the galaxy and beyond, all she wanted to do was explore the universe. Not as an astronaut. As a robot… and from Cornell University because that’s where Carl Sagan was from!

The dream alive in her heart, little wonder then that when she saw an Air Force trailer parked behind her high school, her interest perked up. “Join us and The Air Force pays for your college” came as her ticket to NASA. She enlisted and even specified her college preference but the letters of admission did not come. Or so she thought, till one day, she realized… her father was tearing up the letters because he did not want his daughter to go to university.

She was determined and four years later, in 1986, she graduated with a double major in psychology and engineering from Cornell. An Air Force stint as systems engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton propelled her into a master’s program in space operations systems engineering at Air Force Institute Technology. Thereon, came six years of job as an Air Force orbital analyst.

When she finally joined the Jet Propulsion Lab in 1993, she struck upon IWWTWTF — I was willing to wash the floors — an acronym that she scribbled in every notebook thereon. A constant reminder of how much she yearned getting in, Cox has been a constant in iconic missions such as Galileo, all the Mars rovers – Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, Kepler and Insight. With Perseverance, she has taken on the role of deputy team chief of the engineering operations.

In her many TED talks, she speaks of how she lives in the Martian time zone and actually wears two watches! And when there is some free time to spare on Earth, she occupies herself as a state representative travelling the world to encourage greater participation by women in STEM careers.

“Work does not feel like work. It is where I want to be.”

 

Rover’s Driver

Vandana “Vandi” Verma

Space Roboticist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Drove Curiosity and now driving Perseverance

“I do realise that I possibly have one of the coolest jobs in the world.”

Her seventh birthday was indeed the lucky one. Verma was gifted a set of books on space, which she “devoured” and then set her goal. A space scientist and no less. Her father, a pilot with the Indian Air Force flew Russian-made MiG jet fighters while her mother, a traditional housewife, knew that her daughter will be sent to college and then sorted into an arranged marriage. Born in Halwara in Punjab, India, Verma’s planets were perhaps outweighed by Mars.

After a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, she pursued a master’s program in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Between studies, she gained a pilot’s license because:

“I wanted to fly planes. Actually, what I really wanted to do was make automatic flying planes.”

Her thesis later, also from CMU, involved a three-year astrobiology experimental station at the Atacama desert because of its similarities with the Martian surface. While still a student, she bagged the first prize in a competition to create a robot that was capable of collecting balloons and navigating a maze in an unknown environment.

“As long as what you do is something that interests you, and you do it with passion, it makes your work unique in that different way. There is no right or wrong way.”

Armed with a flying license and loaded with robotics, it was but natural that she co-wrote PLEXIL, a programming technology developed in 2006. A year later, she saw herself in JPL with a special interest in flight software and robotics.

Verma joined the Mars team in 2008 and has since then “driven” all the rovers on the red planet. Together with her team, she has “everything to do with the mobility of the rover.” This includes driving and navigation as well as operating the robotic arm that gathers rock and core samples on Mars.

Existing in Martian time was bound to happen and each day starts 40 Earth minutes after the previous one. Her breakfast could be at 10 pm and dinner 5 am because the rover’s day works in a sol or one Mars day. Each night, it relays back data and images which are carefully studied and helps the team plan for rover’s next day ride. The chartered route is then beamed back so that the rover can start at dawn.

In Verma’s words:

“Perseverance is the most sophisticated machine sent to Mars and will look for biosignatures of past microbial life. The rover’s robotic arm will drill the surface and collect sample the size of chalk. These will be brought back to Earth sometime in the early 2030s.”

A mother to toddler twins, she says her husband has been a pillar of support.

In the end, distance does not matter. At the end of the day, we are all under the same sky.


– All Images Credit: Sidra Choudhry

About Author
Farah Hussain is a trained teacher, who had a stint as a features writer before settling at the newsdesk as a copy editor. She likes words and wordplay. Having lived in different cities across India, the dynamics of regional culture, tossed in geopolitics of the state is what she likes to follow. She likes to keep a tab on news, enjoys cooking and gardening.

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