- As the Instrument Engineer for SuperCam on the Mars 2020 Rover, Vishu Sridhar’s responsibilities include ensuring successful delivery of SuperCam for science operations on the surface of Mars.
For the past five years, Vishnu Sridhar has dedicated his life to Mars. The 27-year-old Queens, New York native, Instrument Engineer for SuperCam on the Mars 2020 Rover, was among a diverse team that worked on NASA’s Perseverance Rover which touched down on Mars’s Jezero crater on Feb. 18. NASA says the SuperCam on the Perseverance rover “examines rocks and soils with a camera, laser and spectrometers to seek organic compounds that could be related to past life on Mars.”
In his profile on the NASA website, Sridhar explains what his responsibilities on the Mars Mission include. “My job is to ensure the successful delivery of SuperCam for science operations on the surface of Mars.” As the Payload Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California, Sridhar has developed cutting-edge technologies to explore worlds beyond our own through systems engineering, instrument design, and operations. “I’ve followed the engineering phases of SuperCam and the Perseverance rover from initial design to build stage to its launch and cruise through space towards Mars,” he says on the NASA website.
All Things Mars
Prior to joining the Mars 2020 project, Sridhar was the Spacecraft Systems Engineer and Flight Director for the Opportunity rover on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project. “During Opportunity’s final uplink that attempted to regain communication following the Mars dust storm, I served as the final Flight Director for Opportunity,” he says on the NASA website. Additionally, he was a Tactical Uplink Lead and a Tactical Downlink Lead for the MER rover Opportunity team. “A mission operations role, in which I was responsible for leading scientists and engineers in planning activities for a given sol (day) on Mars. Through my almost one thousand sols working on the MER project, I became well versed in operating rovers on Mars,” he says.
On the NASA website he talks about being part of the historic Mars mission. “It has been an absolute honor to be part of creating new history in space exploration – being the last Flight Director of the MER rover Opportunity and the cognizant engineer for the Mars 2020 instrument, SuperCam,” he says. “It has been a privilege working alongside the extraordinary people at JPL and the Mars community.”
A glance at Sridhar’s Twitter profile takes you through his work on the SuperCam and on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project.
In a Feb. 13, 2019 tweet, he wrote: “Last night, it was an absolute honor to serve as the last Flight Director for the Mars Exploration Rover – Opportunity. I will remember and cherish my experience operating Opportunity throughout the rest of my career.”
Last July, he shared a photo with his team. “Super excited for Mars2020 Perseverance launch tomorrow,” he wrote. “It has been an incredible journey over the past years!”
On Feb. 21, he shared a photo took about a year ago. “First time Perseverance went for a drive.,” he wrote. “This was about a year ago. Her next drive will be on the surface of Mars!”
Sridhar told Gothamist that although Perseverance is not NASA JPL’s first rover on Mars, it has a unique goal, unlike the previous missions. “What we’re trying to achieve with Perseverance is seeking signs of ancient life on Mars. We have new instruments and technology that are going to explore rocks and samples on Mars to look for bio-signatures. This basically is going to tell us more about our solar system and the habitability of past life in our solar system,” he said. “It’s really understanding and answering the fundamental question: Was there life outside Earth?”
He further explained: “When I say we’re looking for life on Mars, we’re certainly not looking for little green men or Martians or aliens. We’re looking for substances or chemical patterns that only life based-processes can create. These are certain minerals, organic compounds. They’re hints, ones for proving that there was microbial life on Mars at some point.”
And to achieve that, Sridhar said NASA will also be “sending a buddy with it called Ingenuity, which is going to be the first rotorcraft [helicopter] on another planet. That’s going to be really exciting.” Then there’s another instrument, Sridhar told Gothamist, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment is better known as MOXIE, which will produce oxygen from the Martian carbon-dioxide atmosphere. “That’s a tech demo that’s going to pave our way into the future for human space explorers,” he told Gothamist.
Human Exploration, Solar System
While growing up in the Rego Park section of Queens, Sridhar was awed at the airplanes that would take off from nearby LaGuardia airport. He was also attracted to engineering and the STEM field because of his grandfather, who was a civil engineer in India. “He built the second largest dam in India, and he has built trains that are still operational,” he told Gothamist of his grandfather. But Sridhar didn’t want to “work on stuff that’s beneath our atmosphere,” he wanted to be “different,” so he started pursuing aerospace engineering.
As per his LinkedIn profile, Sridhar graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2015 with a B.S. in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering. He completed his high school diploma from the Aviation High School in New York. He has also done an introductory course in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from MIT. Sridhar applied online to NASA after he attended a career fair, which led to an interview for a position at JPL. Outside of work, Sridhar enjoys cooking, playing tennis, hiking/background, and flying drones.
It was an experience in middle school that proved to be a turning point in Sridhar’s life. “One of our high school projects involved sending a weather balloon up to about 100,000 feet,” he told Gothamist. “I put in a couple instruments — an altitude pressure sensor, and a camera,” he said. “It was so high that you could see the curvature of the Earth and the darkness of space. That really opened my eyes and connecting the dots with the science TV shows from my youth made me interested in pursuing and following NASA missions,” he said.
“One of the key events that sparked my interest in space and exploration was watching National Geographic.” Among TV shows that propelled in interest in the career path he chose was “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” a thirteen-part, 1980 television series written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter, with Sagan as presenter. “That really sparked my interest in human exploration and exploring our solar system,” he told Gothamist. There was a brief time when he wanted to become a National Geographic photographer and travel the world, he says in his NASA profile.
Sridhar told Gothamist that the developments with the Mars landing gain more significance with the current challenges and struggles with COVID-19. “We have a pandemic going on. It’s a difficult time. The sort of stuff that’s happening with Mars rover landing, it really allows us to take a step back to reflect on human achievements and what’s left to explore in the future.”
Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.