As fingers were crossed for the touchdown of NASA rover Perseverance on Mars, it was the voice of Indian-American Scientist Swati Mohan, that guided viewers through the entire process and made the announcement when the rover landed, surviving a tricky plunge into the Martian atmosphere.
“Touchdown confirmed. Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” announced Mohan who led the guidance, navigation, and control operations of the Mars 2020 mission.
She says the Guidance, Navigation, and Controls Operations (GN&C) are “eyes and ears” of the spacecraft.
For nine-year-old Mohan, who emigrated to the US at the age of one, the film Star Trek was an inspiration to know the universe better.
“Seeing the beautiful depictions of the new regions of the universe that they were exploring. I remember thinking I want to do that. I want to find new and beautiful places in the universe. The vastness of space holds so much knowledge that we have only begun to learn,” she had told NASA.
Raised in Northern Virginia and Washington DC metro area, she completed her Bachelors’ Degree from Cornell University in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, and her M.S. and PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Aeronautics/Astronautics.
Over the course of her career with NASA, Mohan has worked on the Cassini mission to Saturn and GRAIL — a pair of formation flown spacecraft to the Moon, and has been a mainstay with the Mars 2020 mission since its beginning in 2013.
Mohan said her first physics lesson increased her passion for space and it was when she considered to pursue engineering.
“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,” she said.
Commenting on her team’s role in the current mission, Mohan said during the cruise phase heading toward Mars, their job is to figure out how the spacecraft is oriented, and make sure it is pointed correctly in space — “solar arrays to sun, antenna to Earth, and manoeuvre the spacecraft to get it where we want to go.”
“As the teams operations lead, I am the primary point of communication between the GN&C subsystem and the rest of the project.”
“I am responsible for the training of the GN&C team, scheduling the mission control staffing for GN&C, as well as the policies/procedures the GN&C uses in the mission control room,” Mohan noted.
Mohan who immediately caught the fancy of Indian audience after the touch down, was especially lauded for her look – a bindi on the forehead, representing her Indian roots.
She had also dyed her hair into streaks of blue and styled it with white stars, as requested by her EDL family.
“EDL family voted and I drew the straw for dyeing my hair per their request for landing day. 7 hours to entry. Landing approximately at 12.55 pm. At JPL and ready to go,” she tweeted before the landing.
(With inputs from agencies)