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Meet NASA’s Dr. Swati Mohan, the Space Scientist Behind Perseverance Rover’s Epic Mars Landing

Meet NASA’s Dr. Swati Mohan, the Space Scientist Behind Perseverance Rover’s Epic Mars Landing

  • Rocking a bindi, the Bengaluru-born Indian American calmly announced each step of Perseverance’s journey through her mask in mission control.

Today, Feb. 18, the world bore witness to history, as NASA’s Perseverance Rover and its accompanying mini helicopter ‘Ingenuity’, touched down on Mars’s Jezero crater, at 3:55 p.m EST, ending its seven-month long journey from Earth to Mars.

At the helm of affairs, up in NASA’s control room is an Indian American scientist, Dr. Swati Mohan, the Mars 2020 Guidance, Navigation, and Controls (GN&C) Operations Lead. Mohan has been leading the development of attitude control and the landing system for the rover. Perseverance is seeking to find signs of ancient Mars life inside the 28-mile-wide (45 km) Jezero Crater, which once hosted a lake and river delta.

As Perseverance came in for its high-stakes landing on Feb. 18, Mohan was also credited with calmly announcing each step of Perseverance’s journey through her mask in mission control, during a tense entry, descent and landing. Mohan joins a long list of diverse scientists that worked for eight years to make this historic moment possible. 

It is a testament to the diversity in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team, which includes Ashwin Vasavada, Neel Patel, Gautamkumar Patel, Yogita Shah, Vishnu Sridhar, Rahul Johari, Shivaly Reddy, Pranay Mishra, Asad Aboobaker, Mohamed Abid, Payam Zamani, Dara Sabahi, Al Chen, Thahn Tran, Megan Lin, Lisa Guan, Freddy Wang, Gun-Shing Chen, Adnans Ko, Hiro Ono, Yang Cheng, Grace Tan Wang, Pauline Wang, Philip Twu, amongst others.

Talking to Florida Today, Mohan said that this was a moment she had been working toward for the last eight years. “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.” Mohan added that the last few years preparing for this day have been grueling. “The last three to four years especially, then the pandemic on top of it has kind of added another layer of stress.”

Mohan told Florida Today that 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.”

“When I was 16, I took my first physics class. I was lucky enough to have a great teacher, and everything was so understandable and easy. That was when I really considered engineering, as a way to pursue space.”

Mohan who is at the crux of Perseverance, the centerpiece of NASA’s $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission designed this “seeing and listening” rover. About her role, Mohan told The Guardian, “The GN&C subsystem is the ‘eyes and ears’ of the spacecraft. During the cruise phase, our job is to figure out how we are oriented, ensure 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. During EDL, GN&C determines the position of the spacecraft and commands maneuvers to help it land safely. As operations lead, I am the primary point of communication between the GN&C subsystem and the rest of the project, responsible for training the GN&C team, scheduling mission control staffing, as well as policies and procedures in the mission control room.”

Talking to The Guardian, Mohan admitted there were plenty of nerves too. “Before the launch, I was nervous, but felt prepared. By the time of launch, we had gone through three full rehearsals, including one where we practiced for multiple complications. For the launch itself, most of the work is done by the launch vehicle team, so our job at JPL mission control only starts once we get a signal from the spacecraft after launch. Once we got data, I could verify that GN&C hardware was working correctly, and the spacecraft was safe and healthy, that was a big relief,” said the space scientist.

Mohan further added that the Mars robotic rover landing is termed as ‘Seven Minutes of Terror.’ The JPL engineer explains why. “Entry, descent, and landing is often referred to as ‘seven minutes of terror’ as it takes seven minutes to get from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the ground. During this time, there are so many changes and commands that need to occur in exact sequence, with millisecond precision. Any one action that doesn’t happen correctly can potentially lead to Perseverance crashing on the surface, and the loss of the whole mission. The time it takes for light/information to travel from Mars to Earth on the day of landing is about 11 minutes. So, the operations team on Earth cannot do anything to help or fix issues, because by the time they receive information of something going wrong, Perseverance would have crashed on the ground (or not) already.”

However, with a successful landing this afternoon, Mohan and the NASA team are resting easy. 

The NASA Scientist, who was born in Bengaluru, emigrated from India when she was just one-year-old, according to her profile at NASA. She has spent most of her childhood in the Northern Virginia-Washington, D.C. 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. 

“Actually, I wanted to be a pediatrician until I was about 16 years old,” said the proverbial rocket scientist Mohan in an interview with TNEC. “I was always interested in space but really didn’t know about opportunities to turn that into a job.”

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Mohan further added: “When I was 16, I took my first physics class. I was lucky enough to have a great teacher, and everything was so understandable and easy. That was when I really considered engineering, as a way to pursue space.” While she has been a member of the Perseverance Rover mission since the beginning at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. 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). Mohan told Florida Today that her feeling of exhilaration is bittersweet because it will signal the end of their time on the project and with the team. “It’s sort of like that where you’ve been working on something day in and day out for seven to eight years and now you’re coming up on the series finale and for better or worse after that day it’s done and you’re not going to be working on it anymore after landing day regardless of what the outcome is.”

Rocking a bindi in the control room, Mohan picked up quite a few cheers from fans on social media. Netizens noticed her bindi and took to Twitter in appreciation. “I wore a bindi through primary school and got bullied, physically bullied for it,” Anuradha Damale wrote on Twitter from London. “Swati Mohan in mission control, thank you.”

Less obvious was the dyed braid in her hair she wore for the historic event, but it also made it online, “EDL (NASA’s acronym for Entry, Descent and Landing) family voted and I drew the straw for dyeing my hair per their request for landing day. 7 hours to entry. At JPL and ready to go!” 

Netizens also flooded social media with congratulatory remarks.”Dr. Swati Mohan has inspired a new generation of scientists today,” wrote astrophysicist Karan Jani, who made the Forbes 30under 30 list in 2017. 

Even today Mohan has a strong connection with Bengaluru, and has been visiting India regularly. “I was born in Bangalore, but moved to the United States when I was a year old. My parents still have a house in Bangalore, and spend a part of every year there,” reveals Dr. Mohan to The Guardian. And that is not all, as like any big Indian family, hers is close knit. “I do have a lot of extended family (cousins, aunts and uncles) still in Bangalore, and other parts of India,” adds this mother of two daughters. Dr. Mohan’s husband Santhosh is a pediatric infectious disease doctor and a microbiologist, and his family is also from Bengaluru.

Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.

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