Path to NASA started way back watching Star Trek as a child, Indian-American Swati Mohan tells Biden

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March 05, 2021 9:00 AM

Mohan played a pivotal role in landing the US space agency's historic Perseverance rover on the Martian surface on February 18.

Swati Mohan, NASA Mars 2020 MissionSwati Mohan, the NASA scientist who spearheaded the development if attitude control and landing system of the rover. (Image: Twitter/MKStalin)

Indian-American aerospace engineer Swati Mohan, who played a key role in the successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on the Martian surface, told President Joe Biden on Thursday that her path to the US space agency began when she watched the first episode of Star Trek as a child.

Mohan leads the guidance, navigation, and control operations of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. She played a pivotal role in landing the US space agency’s historic Perseverance rover on the Martian surface on February 18. Mohan was also the first to confirm that the rover had successfully touched down on the Martian surface after surviving a particularly tricky plunge through the atmosphere of the Red Planet.

Mohan, who emigrated from India to the US when she was only a year old, said her path actually started way back when she was a child, watching popular TV show Star Trek.

“In addition to those fantastical scenes of space, what really captured my attention was this really close-knit team which was working together, manipulating this technological marvel with the sole purpose of exploring space and understanding new things and seeking new life,” Mohan told Biden during a virtual interaction.

President Biden on Thursday congratulated the NASA team responsible for last month’s successful landing of the six-wheeled rover on Mars and for giving the country a “dose of confidence” at a moment when the nation’s reputation as a scientific leader has been tattered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden speaking in video conference call with the leadership of space agency’s jet propulsion laboratory team expressed awe over the landing of Perseverance. Interacting with Biden, Mohan said, “You know, Perseverance is my first mission at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), where I’ve gotten to work from the very beginning of formulation, all the way through operations, and it made me feel like I was part of that crew. Being able to work with this incredibly diverse, talented team that has become like a family, spending years creating our own technological marvel has been a privilege.”

“Those last days and weeks leading up to landing day, it was pretty smooth, but we were all still really nervous and, frankly, terrified until we got through those final seven minutes. To be able to call touchdown safely, to see those first images come back from Mars, to see the place where we have never been able to go to on Mars before and go there — reach there for the express purpose of seeking out new life just made it feel like I was living in a dream,” said the Indian-American engineer.

“Now that tremendous relief has passed for the team of being able to be there safely, all that’s left is the excitement and the thrill of all the scientific discoveries that are yet to come and what Perseverance can actually find — and hopefully find those signs of past life on Mars,” Mohan said.

Biden in response praised Mohan and other NASA scientists for the landing of Perseverance on Mars. “I tell you what, you said you feel like you’re ‘living a dream’ — you’ve created a dream for millions and millions of young kids, young Americans. You talk about STEM. You — it was — look, the thing that I found so exhilarating about this: You all did this — the whole team — the team I can see now and the entire team at JPL — what you did: You restored a dose of confidence in the American people,” Biden said.

“They were beginning to wonder about us. They were beginning to wonder: Are we still the country we always believed we were? You guys did it. You guys gave a sense of ‘America is back.’ It’s — it’s astounding what you did. You should not underestimate it. You should not underestimate it,” the President asserted.

“You did it the most American way: You believed in science, you believed in hard work, and you believed there wasn’t a darn thing you couldn’t do if you put your minds together. One of the reasons why we’re such an incredible country is we’re such a diverse country. We bring the best out of every single solitary culture in the world here in the United States of America, and we give people an opportunity to let their dreams run forward,” Biden said.

“Everyone was so down the last years about: Is America still the — fount of change? And are we still the country that has hopes and develops and pursues the most unlikely things to happen? And we are. And you all demonstrated it. I really mean this. It’s so much bigger than landing Perseverance on Mars. It’s about the American spirit, and you brought it back. You brought back in a moment we so desperately need it,” he observed.

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