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The Four Indian Women on the NASA Perseverance Project.
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The Four Indian Women on the NASA Perseverance Project.

In late February of this year, NASA successfully landed the Perseverance rover nick-named Percy, on the Martian surface. With this, NASA achieved the first and probably the most dangerous step in a massive voyage to bring back rocks from Mars that could hold the answer if life existed on the planet.

NASA’s Perseverance took off on 30th July last year, after a nearly seven-month-long journey the rover finally landed on Mars, becoming the fifth NASA rover to reach Mars. The four previous rovers to reach Mars are Sojourner, twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity and Curiosity.

The Perseverance rover has 25 cameras and two microphones, many of them have been turned on during descent. The rover took 11 1/2 minutes to send the first signal to earth.

Though the rover, which could lead to groundbreaking discoveries, is a brainchild of the American space agency, four Indian origin women have been a part of this entire mission and have played noteworthy roles in realising this space mission. In this article, we will try to know about the four Indian-origin and their groundbreaking contributions.

1. Bhavya Lal

The first on the list is Bhavya Lal who is the acting chief of staff for NASA and the senior White House appointee at NASA.

Indian origin, Bhavya Lal also served as a member of the Biden Presidential Transition Agency Review Team for the agency and supervised the agency’s transition President Joe Biden’s administration.

Bhavya Lal has a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in nuclear engineering, as well as a Master of Science degree in technology and policy, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also has a doctorate in public policy and public administration from George Washington University. Lal also holds the honour of being a member of both nuclear engineering and public policy honour societies.

From 2005 to 2020, Lal served as a member of the research staff at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI). During this period, she used her extensive experience in engineering and space technology.

During this period of 15 years, Lal also directed analysis of space technology, strategy, and policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and National Space Council, along with federal space-oriented organizations, including NASA, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community.

With her extensive expertise, Bhavya Lal also contributed to engineering systems and innovation theory and practice to topics in space. Some of the areas of Lal’s noteworthy contributions include recent projects on commercial activities in low-Earth orbit and deep space, in-orbit servicing assembly and manufacturing, small satellites, human exploration, space nuclear power, space exploration, and space science. Apart from practically contributing to wide areas, Lal has also published more than 50 papers in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings.

Before her joining STPI, Bhavya Lal served as the president of a science and technology policy research and consulting firm in Waltham, Massachusetts named C-STPS LLC.  Before her time in STPS LLC, she served as director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Studies at Abt Associates Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Here are some other notable achievements and contributions of Bhavya Lal,

• Lal is an active expert of space technology.

• Lal has chaired, co-chaired, or served on five high-impact National Academy of Science (NAS) committees.

• Lal served two consecutive terms on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Federal Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing (ACCRES)

• She was an External Council member of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program and the Technology, Innovation and Engineering Advisory Committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC).

• Bhavya Lal served on five National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) Committees, the most recent of which is on Space Nuclear Propulsion Technologies scheduled to be released in 2021.

• Bhavya Lal co-founded and is serving as the co-chair of the policy track of the American Nuclear Society’s annual conference on Nuclear and Emerging Technologies in Space (NETS).

• Lal co-organizes a seminar series on space history and policy with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

• For her significant contributions to the space sector, she was nominated and selected to be a Corresponding Member of the International Academy of Astronautics.

2. Swathi Mohan

Indian origin, Swathi Mohan is the second woman who is playing a significant role in the ongoing Mars mission. She is leading the Mars 2020 Guidance, Navigation, and Controls (GN&C) Operations.

Mohan’s role is highly crucial for the success of the mission since the GN&C subsystem is called the “eyes and ears” of the spacecraft.

Describing her work in a NASA interview, Mohan said her job is to figure out how we the team-oriented and make sure the spacecraft is pointed correctly in space that is, solar arrays to the sun, antenna to Earth, as well as to manipulate the spacecraft to get it where the team wants to go.

Moham informed that during entry, descent, and landing on Mars, GN&C determines the position of the spacecraft and controls the manoeuvres 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. 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 said.

Swati Mohan was born in India and emigrated to the United States at the age of 1. She was brought up in Northern Virginia and Washington DC metro area. Mohan completed her B.S from Cornell University in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering and went on to obtain M.S. and PhD from the prestigious MIT in Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Swathi Mohan has worked on multiple missions such as the Cassini mission to Saturn and GRAIL, a pair of formation flown spacecraft to the Moon.

Mohan has been a part of the ongoing Mars 2020 mission almost from the beginning of the project back in 2013. At the moment, Mohan is leading the Mars 2020 Guidance, Navigation, and Controls Operations at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA.

Speaking with NASA about her interest in space and space science, Swathi Mohan said,  “I wanted to be a paediatrician until I was about 16 years old. I was always interested in space, but I didn’t know about opportunities to turn that interest into a job. 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 also told about her inspiration from “Star Trek.” She said I remember watching my first episode of ‘Star Trek’ at the age of 9 and 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.”

Mohan finds it an absolute honour and privilege to work at JPL. Mohan says that she is “always in constant awe” of the exciting things that take place at JPL every single day and the things she able to “do, and see, and learn.” She also mentioned that it is a wonderful and extremely talented people who make all the fascinating things possible.

3. Vandi Verma

Vandi Verma is the third on the list. She is currently serving as the Chief Engineer for Robotic Operations for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, as well as the Assistant Section Manager for Mobility and Robotics Systems at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Verma grew up in India. From childhood, she was fascinated with learning everything possible about space and aviation. Verma first came to the US on a university merit scholarship.

She was “blown away” by the Sojourner rover from the Mars Pathfinder mission which also inspired her to enrol for a mobile robot programming class at Carnegie Mellon University.

Verma says, she always loved experimenting with the theory she learned in her classes and her robot ended up winning the autonomous robot competition. After achieving this feat, Verma was sure that there was nothing else that she wants to do other than working on robots exploring space. “I applied my thesis work to a number of space robotics research projects. I interned with NASA collaborators and started,” Verma says.

Vandi Verma specialises in space robotics, autonomous robots and robotic operations. Till now, she has also worked on several Space Robotics and Artificial Intelligence research and technology development tasks, as well as designed, developed, and operated rovers on Mars, the Arctic, Antarctica, and the Atacama Desert.

Verma has been working at NASA since she graduated with a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. Most of her works at NASA involves works on early design, through development, testing and launch, to landing and surface operations.

For more than a decade now, since 2008, Verma has been driving rovers on Mars such as Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and now Perseverance. Apart from that Verma is also operating the robotic arm and sampling system as a Rover Planner.

Verma also does coding. She has written flight software that runs onboard Curiosity and Perseverance, and simulation software used in operations.

Verma informs that working as the Chief Engineer for Robotic operations, her duty is to provide technical leadership for operating the robotics on Perseverance. “, It is an engaging job since robotic operations attract knowledgeable engineers with no dearth of good ideas,” she said.

Her team does all types of rover driving including planning autonomous navigation, performing all the activities with the robotic arm and the sample caching system, handing the rover interface to the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, and perform post-activity data analysis.

“I am also in the driver’s seat for these roles as a Rover Planner. As Assistant Section Manager for Mobility and Robotics, I help lead about 150 JPL roboticists developing new technology for future missions and working on a variety of JPL robotic missions. The Mars Ingenuity Helicopter technology is an example of the kind of innovation developed by our section. In my role as a flight software developer I design and program new capability such as the Rover Collision Modeling capability that will enable the rover to deploy the robotic arm on a target itself,” Verma said.

However, Verma mentions that there is but one side effect of this otherwise exciting job; that is, you have to spend your spare time working.

Speaking about her hobbies other than space, Verma says she likes talking to kids about space robotics. She also likes tracking and can be seen backpacking the John Muir Trail, climbing the Royal Arches in Yosemite.

For young minds, Verma’s advice is to invest their time in understanding the fundamentals and use their unique ideas to find or create projects. She believes, young people should apply what they have learned to solve the problems they come across.

4. Anita Sengupta

The fourth Indian origin woman involved in the Mars mission is Anita Sengupta. With her engineering skills, Sengupta has designed some extreme machines. She has designed a probe for scorching-hot Venus,  Mars parachutes that deploy at twice the speed of sound. She has conducted experiments that will travel 17,150 mph in free-fall around Earth, on board the International Space Station.

In 2016, Sengupta’s instrument, the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) won a Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award. The CAL not only will be moving fast but will be the coldest spot in the Universe. It will also use lasers to push against atoms to slow them down.

Speaking about CAL, Sengupta says, “At these incredibly cold temperatures, atoms do something unusual – they move together in unison, like a wave…This can give us insight into the quantum realm and explain strange properties, like super fluidity and superconductivity.”

These clouds of atoms are known as  Bose-Einstein condensates and have been created in labs where they are influenced by the pull of gravity. In the microgravity of the space station, these cloud of atoms can be turned much colder and nearly a billion times chillier than the vacuum of space.

As a result of the available microgravity, the atom clouds will persist longer. Sengupta informed that on the ground, these clouds of atoms can be observed for a millisecond before they fall out of the trap as a result of the gravitational pull.

Sengupta started her career working in the aerospace industry for Boeing. Initially, she worked on the cryogenic propulsion system for the Delta IV launch vehicle, microgravity flight tests for the X37 vehicle and XM Radio Satellite ion propulsion system. Three years later, she got hired at JPL and started working on the DS1/Dawn ion propulsion system which was also the topic of her PhD research. She also worked on the Mars Science Laboratory parachute system, SAGE Venus Entry System, Mars Ascent Vehicle. At present, she is an atomic physics facility for the International Space Station (the Cold Atom Laboratory).

Apart from her interest in engineering and space, Sengupta loves to ride motorcycles in mountain canyons. However, these days, she is busy practising for her pilot’s instrument rating, which, in her opinion, is one of the toughest challenges she has ever faced.

“Flying in clouds, you do not have any visual cues. You have to rely on the instruments, which can contradict what you are feeling, and you have to overcome that,” she says.

Similar to Swathi Mohan, Sengupta is also fascinated by “Star Trek.”  “I was six years old, I watched the original series ‘Star Trek’ reruns with my dad and the ‘Doctor Who’ original series on Public Television. The concept of alien worlds and civilizations made me wonder what else was out there and what I could do to be a space explorer,” Sengupta says expressing her source of inspiration.

Sengupta’s message for the younger generation is, “If you put your mind to something tangible, it will happen. We dream to collect our thoughts for where we want our tomorrow to be. If you want to be part of the space program, you will be if you work hard, study hard and pursue your passions.”

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