Indian American woman scientist who led the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover mission

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The seven-month-long journey from Earth to Mars for NASA’s Perseverance Rover has finally come to an end. The Mars Rover successfully landed on the Red Planet on Thursday, February 18, 2021.

One of the key persons in this monumental moment of humankind, the person who was leading the development of attitude control and the landing system of the Mars 2020 Rover was a woman scientist of an Indian-origin.

Dr Swati Mohan was the first person to announce: “Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life,” as the rover arrived on the Red Planet.

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Lands Successfully on Mars (Highlight Reel) – YouTube

Dr. Mohan is the Mars 2020 Guidance, Navigation and Controls (GN&C) Operations Lead in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles. She has been working on the project for eight years now.

The nail-biting descent from orbit to the ground – known as the “seven minutes of terror” because so many things have to go right to pull it off – was what Dr. Mohan had expressed anxiety about – on NASA JPL videos and in an interview to Florida Today.

“During that seven minutes, hundreds of engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory who have worked on the mission will be standing by to see if nearly a decade of work pays off,” reported the Florida Today site.

Thankfully, everything went off without a hitch. There is an 11-minute gap between a signal being sent by the Rover from Mars to the Earth, so its landing had to be automated and not remotely controlled from Earth. The Rover has traveled 300 million miles in space to reach its destination.

“I’ve been on Perseverance longer than I’ve been at any school. 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,” Dr Mohan said.

“The last three to four years especially, then the pandemic on top of it has kind of added another layer of stress.”

When the pandemic surged in year 2020, most of NASA’s team members were forced to their respective homes. At such an hour, Mohan says working from home due to COVID- 19 has made communicating clearly a critical component for their success.

“The saving grace for our team is that we’ve had so many working with each other for six to eight years so there is that level of familiarity of being able to pick up on inflections, voices, body language even over Zoom of what’s critical or not,” she explained.

Dr Mohan is the key person who has been continuously communicating and coordinating between the GN&C subsystem and the rest of the project’s team. Apart from being the lead systems engineer during the development process, she also looks after the team and schedules the mission control staffing for GN&C.

She emigrated from India to America when she was just one-year-old, as per NASA. She has spent most of her childhood in Northern Virginia-Washington DC metro area. The scientist holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering from Cornell University and completed her M.S. and PhD from MIT in Aeronautics/Astronautics.

While she has been a member of the Perseverance Rover mission since the beginning at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA., Dr Mohan has also been a part of various important missions from NASA. The Indian-American Scientist worked on projects Cassini (a mission to Saturn) and GRAIL (a pair of formation flown spacecraft to the Moon). Now, she is currently at the Lab waiting for the confirmation of the historic Mars landing.