"Touchdown is confirmed," Swati Mohan's role in NASA's Perseverance mission receives praise

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The role of Swati Mohan in Nasa’s Perseverance programme is receiving attention for all the right reasons. The latest research mission on Mars with a car-sized rover (NASA's fifth in two years) has had many engaged with the space agency’s work over the last week. That curiosity has extended toward the actors who have made the latest venture possible.

It was Swati Mohan who announced that “Touchdown is confirmed,” marking a success for the initial phase of Perseverance on the red planet. The announcement caused scenes of celebration in the control room of Nasa’s Jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena.

First images from the mission on Mars.

This, from a team that have undertaken years of research to get to this point. Dr Mohan put this into perspective when she commented that she had been working on Perseverance longer than she had been at any school.

I have 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.”

Dr Mohan is a scientist and played a leading role in the success of Perseverance as Controls Operations Lead and Mission Commentator. She specifically helped as one of a number of members on the entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase, a part of the mission which NASA describes as being the ‘shortest, but most intense phase’ of the Mars mission.

It’s especially important because success at this juncture allows NASA to continue its goal of recouping rock samples. The space agency state that this will:

- Help determine whether an area of interest is suitable for life

- Help Nasa look for signs of ancient life itself

Perseverance is the first step of Mars Sample Return, so it was super critical that the landing be a success because it’s only once she gets to the ground that she can actually collect these samples. Without the samples, there’s nothing to return back to earth, so then the next few missions that are geared at going back to Jezreel crater in order to pick up these samples; to collect the samples from orbit after a rocket has fired from the ground to get them back up into space and then bring them back, none of those could be set into motion until we got to the ground safely."

She emigrated to the US when she was only a year old, and though much of her childhood was spent in the Northern Virginia-Washington area, she went onto degrees at Cornell and MIT where she completed her MS and PHD in aeronautics.

After the event, and in the same interview with News9live she spoke more openly about the influence her upbringing has had up till this point.

My family still holds to a lot of the core values that come from our heritage and what they were raised with. One of those key values is education and because of that they were always super supportive of anything that I wanted to do or learn or try to achieve"

She added that it played a large part in helping to keep her moving ‘to the next step’ and to not lose faith or to give up.

The reaction to the streaming of an Indian-American with a Bindi leading a mission of this magnitude has been overwhelmingly positive. The astrophysicist, Karan Jani, praised Mohan for inspiring the next generation of scientists - and he is right in doing so. These events can play a transformational role in changing perceptions as to where minority influence can be felt when its path to leadership is undeterred. As Karan has highlighted, it also plays a role in transforming perceptions for what is possible for the next generation of potential scientists.

The story all round has been a resounding success. When you think of the responsibility of working for NASA, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the need to be exceptionally smart, but as part of Nasa’s small cohort of talented Asian staff, Swati Mohan is proving to be an equally exceptional leader.

Mayowa Ayodele

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