Chennai: Interplanetary missions have always been about ensuring the highest degree of safety for the traveling spacecraft, but NASA’s Perseverance Rover Mission or Mars 2020 was vastly different, recalls NASA’s Dr Swati Mohan. In her experience, working amid the deadly and devastating COVID-19 pandemic meant ensuring the utmost safety of every team member, over and above that of the Mars Probe. This is significant given that the launch of the rocket and the Mars landing which happened in July 2020 and February 2021 respectively happened during peak pandemic spread in the USA.
Speaking at an event organized by the US Consulate General in India, Dr. Swati Mohan, Guidance, Navigation, and Control Systems Engineering Group Supervisor, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) touched upon her Indian roots, family, and her foray into Aerospace Engineering. She made headlines around the world for her pivotal role in landing the U.S. space agency’s historic Perseverance rover on the Martian surface on February 18, this year.
Born in Karnataka, India, Swati moved to the US at a very young age and aspired to be a doctor. Growing up, she was fascinated by Star Trek, reading books on space, Big Bang and the pictures from the Hubble Space telescope. However, all of it remained a hobby and not a serious career choice.
Her time at high school proved crucial in helping her realize that she was good at Physics and that Biology as a subject, didn’t come naturally to her. “I couldn’t stand the smell of dissections or have stable hands to perform it,” she recalls. Eventually, her passion and aptitude for Physics led her to internships at multiple American Space facilities and also a degree at Cornell University.
Making a mention of her family, she spoke about her Indian roots and her parents’ who also worked in Science and Engineering related jobs and remained a huge support. On the crucial Mars 2020 Mission, she recollects that her husband, a doctor, equally shared the responsibility back at home. “Both of us have demanding careers and shift work. Amid the pandemic, he headed for the COVID ward and I headed for the NASA Mission Control” she said, adding that her in-laws too were very supportive.
Regarding the challenges faced during the mission, she touched upon how there was an earthquake at their Control Center at NASA JPL, just 15 minutes prior to the spacecraft launch. “We are flying a critical mission, but still the safety of our spacecraft was not solely the number one priority. We had to balance the risk level and protect the people who are working with us (during a pandemic). It meant having less people in Mission control,” she replied to a query.
Regarding her encounters with racism in the US, she said that some comments by people who didn’t try to understand Indian culture caused her difficulty. She added that though her organization (JPL) was very diverse, she faced challenges as a woman in a male-dominated STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) field.
According to Dr. Swati, an unexpected development at the time of Mars landing was that the spacecraft had not selected the safest of the four prospective landing spots. Instead, it had selected the one that was a grade above in terms of risk. Despite what she described as the “7 minutes of terror” (the Mars landing), their craft made a successful landing, after slowing down from nearly 5.4Km/sec to 80m/s. All of this and the successful landing and further Mars exploration was made possible, thanks to the reduction of landing speed caused by the heat-shield, supersonic parachute and on-board engines, she explains.
Dr. Swati who was recently congratulated by US President Joseph Biden encouraged students and budding aerospace engineers to “actively do your best, create the opportunity, perform additional research, take up internships, network with people and use each opportunity to figure out the next”.