As the world watched NASA’s Perseverance rover make a historic landing on Mars, it was the calm and steady voice of Indian-American scientist Dr Swati Mohan that was heard providing constant updates to the team as they navigated a particularly tricky landing.
“Touchdown confirmed,” Mohan announced as the mission control room in California burst into applause and cheers. “Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life.” In a video of the historic moment, Mohan is seen wearing a bindi on her forehead — a detail that has since captured the attention of thousands of Indians on Twitter.
— NASA (@NASA) February 18, 2021
Mohan, who successfully spearheaded the development of attitude control and the landing system for the rover, was among the team of scientists behind the Perseverance mission. The attitude control system is responsible for pointing the rover in the direction it needs to be and also helps figure out where the spacecraft is oriented in space.
The Cornell graduate first emigrated from India to the United States when she was just a year old and spent most of her childhood in the Northern Virginia-Washington DC area. Mohan traces her love for space back to the American science fiction series ‘Star Trek’, which she first watched at the age of nine. While she wanted to become a paediatrician until she was 16, she later decided to become an engineer and pursue her interest in space exploration.
Newspapers and commentators around the world have praised the diversity of the team behind NASA’s historic Perseverance mission, hailing the work of Dr Mohan in particular. “Not only is Mohan a pivotal player in the effort to determine whether there was ever life on the red planet; she’s also a reflection of the progress NASA has made in reflecting the nation it represents,” CNN wrote in an article.
Speaking about the nerve wracking moments before the rover landed on Mars, Mohan told the BBC, “I was so focused on what I needed to hear in order to know what I needed to say that it wasn’t until after I called ‘touchdown confirmed’ and people started cheering that I realised, ‘oh my gosh, we actually did this. We are actually on Mars. This is not a practice run. This is the real thing’.”
“@NASAPersevere is still in space right now, about 9,000 miles from Mars. So far, she is healthy and on course.”
— NASA (@NASA) February 18, 2021
According to USA Today, NASA has come a long way since its first diverse class of astronauts in 1978. In an article, it pointed out that many members of the Perseverance team were women and people of colour. For instance, Mohan, the article stated, was part of the Perseverance mission since its very inception.
But NASA still has a long way to go. “Recent employment numbers show 72% of NASA employees are white, with 12% Black, 7% Asian American, 8% Latino and 1% American Indian. Meanwhile, only 34% of NASA employees are women,” USA Today wrote.
On Friday, NASA released a number of stunning images of the surface of the Red Planet taken by the Perseverance rover. After it touched down near an ancient river delta in the early hours of Thursday, the rover will now search for traces of ancient life and will gather the most vital rock samples for a possible return to Earth.