When NASA's rover, Perseverance, gently landed on the surface of Mars last week after seven months in space, millions of miles away in the US space agency's control room, a woman's voice rang out: "Touchdown confirmed!" The announcement was from Indian American scientist Dr Swati Mohan--the woman who played a pivotal role in the landing of the historic craft.
Mohan was 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, in her bio page on the NASA website, said she got interested in space after watching the popular TV show "Star Trek" when she was nine. "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.
Her passion for space increased further when she took her first physics class at the age of 16.
Commenting on her team's role in the current mission, Mohan said their job during the cruise phase heading towards Mars was to figure out how the spacecraft is oriented, and make sure it is pointed correctly in space -- "solar arrays to the sun, antenna to Earth, and manoeuvre the spacecraft to get it where we want to go", she is quoted as saying in her bio page on the NASA website.
In an interview with Times of India, Mohan said "none would have been possible without diversity. Everybody built from the strengths of one another so the capability of the full team was more than the sum of the individual people".
Mohan, who emigrated from India to the US when she was only a year old said "I am Indian as much as I am American. My parents raised me with very strong Indian values...So we were able to take the best of both worlds and integrate it into who we are".
Raised in the Northern Virginia-Washington DC metro area, she completed her bachelor's degree from Cornell University in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, and her MS 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.