Hidden Figures No More

Hidden Figures No More

When the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars after its 300-million-mile journey from earth, a woman’s voice announced the successful touchdown: Swati Mohan, head of guidance, navigation and control operations at the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Times have changed since the days of Hidden Figures. In fact, this February NASA named its Washington DC headquarters building after Mary W. Jackson, its first African American female engineer. Jackson was played by Janelle Monáe in the movie based on the story of the space program’s human computers. In 2019, Mary Jackson and fellow “Hidden Figures” Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Christine Darden were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award, for their work.


Swati Mohan

Today, Swati Mohan is just one of many female JPL scientists, engineers, and managers who are helping the Mars 2020 mission break new ground and giving voice to the hundreds of women working at JPL, developing automated systems, crafting scientific priorities and leading teams of professionals in executing the most advanced robotic exploration in our solar system.

A mission like Perseverance takes decades to plan and execute. Only the most dedicated and talented explorers can succeed. “I’ve been on Perseverance longer than I’ve been at any school,” Swati said. “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.” That’s why you saw the control room explode with joy when Swati announced the rover finally landed on the red planet.



We’ll be seeing many more of the women on the mission as Perseverance begins to look for signs of ancient life in Jezero crater, an ancient Mars lake with an intriguing river delta. Inspired by their achievements where no man has gone before, we’re paying tribute to them with our Star collection. Here are some of the interplanetary stars we’ll see in the weeks and months to come.


MiMi Aung: Helicopter Parent

One of the most exciting parts of the Perseverance mission will take flight soon: the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, led by project manager MiMi Aung. If Ingenuity succeeds, it will be the first powered flight on another planet. To celebrate this Wright Brothers moment, Ingenuity carries a small piece from the Wright Brothers plane.

Because the atmosphere on Mars is so thin, about 100 times thinner than Earth's atmosphere, the entire helicopter, including solar panel, batteries, computers, rotors and landing gear, has to weigh less than 4 pounds. To lift off in the thin Martian atmosphere, Ingenuity’s blades must spin much faster than helicopters on earth. The Ingenuity team developed twin carbon-fiber blades that spin in opposite directions so the light craft can fly straight despite its feather light weight and powerful blades.

"I want to add a real dimension to space exploration," MiMi says. "We study Mars with spacecraft in orbit. And we have rovers now on the surface that can rove. But we're not using the aerial dimension. Adding that dimension was what drove me." Watch for Ingenuity to take flight this April.


Katie Stack Morgan: Rock Star

Many of the leading scientists on the Mars 2020 mission are women. Katie Stack Morgan is the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s deputy research scientist for the Mars 2020 mission. She studies Martian sedimentary rocks to understand the evolution of ancient surface processes as well as searching the signs of ancient microbial life on Mars.

“The really exciting thing about Jezero is that it has a beautifully preserved delta and from there we will take the samples to understand what each sandstone in that place could tell us about Mars and its evolution. The instruments are well adapted to look for things we call biosignatures, signs of the ancient life of Mars."


Moo Stricker: Planet Protector

Moogega “Moo” Stricker is NASA JPL’s Planetary Protection lead for Perseverance. Her responsibility was to make sure that the rover is as clean as possible before it landed on Mars to make sure that they can eliminate Earth as a source if they detect signs of microbial life on Mars. Moo specializes in developing plasma sterilization methodologies. "It is really important that we send a rover that is clean and we make sure that it will not contaminate Mars and that everything we bring is really from there," she says.


Diana Trujillio: Arm Wrestler 
Diana Trujillo is the leader of the team of engineers who developed Perseverance’s robotic arm. She also provided live narration of the landing in Spanish, a first. Diana grew up in Colombia, the first Latina to be enrolled in NASA Academy. She arrived in the United States with $300, knowing almost no English. She cleaned houses to pay for her studies. She is now a respected robotics researcher on both Curiosity rover and Perseverance:
a demonstration of perseverance herself.

Jennifer Trosper: Mission Manager 

Jennifer Trosper is the Perseverance rover deputy project manager at the Jet Propulsion Lab and held lead roles on Mars Pathfinder, Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the Mars Science Laboratory rover. Jennifer began her career at JPL as a subsystems engineer and worked her way up through the ranks, eventually operating and steering rovers. She now is helping to manage the entire Perseverance mission team.


Lori Glaze: NASA Planetary Director

Lori Glaze leads the Planetary Science division of NASA, which focuses on space missions and research that seek to answer how our solar system formed and evolved and whether there are other worlds that could
support life.

When Glaze was growing up, her mother worked as an aeronautical engineer, and was very passionate about her work, from mechanical work on commercial airliners to the space shuttle program. “That was a tremendous inspiration for me, as a young woman, seeing that a technical career, a career in leadership in a mathematical or scientific field, was possible,” Glaze said.

In 1980, when Lori was a high school student in Seattle, she heard and felt the blast of Mount St. Helens, inspiring a lifetime interest in volcanoes. In college, she learned that volcanoes aren’t just on Earth. Lori’s curiosity led her to study the way lava flows, how eruptions happen and differences among volcanoes on different planets. She has worked on many proposed missions to Venus.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, Lori has witnessed a huge growth in opportunities for women like herself to work in leadership positions. “It’s the most diverse group of people I’ve ever worked with and it’s the kind of place where you feel like everyone’s ideas are being heard; and really moving along and advancing our understanding in how we want to go about doing science at NASA,” she said. “I think it’s a great place to be today.”



Blog post written by Cheryl Kremkow

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