Talking Rocket Science, Moon & Mars Missions With A NASA Engineer
Cameraperson: Shiv Kumar Maurya
Space exploration is the flavour of the season, with India recently sending its mission to the moon – Chandrayaan-2. NASA, the premier space exploration entity of the US, has been closely tracking India’s moon mission, while also getting ready to send another mission to Mars next year. We recently caught up with Ann Devereaux, flight system engineer at NASA, who has been associated with the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in 2012 and is part of the team for the 2020 Mars Mission.
We spoke to her at length about everything space: About going to the moon, about going to Mars and how the experience of building spacecraft has been for her. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Ann, to start with, have you always been interested in space? When did that all start?
I hate to say it because it sounds like a cliché. When I was a little girl, I grew up right near the Kennedy Space Centre, where NASA sets off its launches. It’s the Sriharikota of NASA. That’s where I grew up. The plates in our house would rattle. And it was really exciting. I used to look at pictures of planets and stars. At one point I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I did communications and I started out building radios. My first job out of university was to go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and I’ve been there ever since.
It sounds like a very exciting job. The Curiosity Rover – what part of that whole mission were you involved with?
I started out as a radio engineer. People probably know there are two ways that we talk to our Mars rovers. One is a classic. It’s got a big antenna and it can go straight to Earth. That’s long distance, long haul. It’s a very limited data rate. I mean just because you need a lot of power and a big antenna. Also, you can’t always see the rover when Mars turns around. The other way that we talk to the rover is we have a different set of radios at a different frequency and it actually talks to the orbiters. There are several orbiters now that have what we call relay radios that are specific only to talk to things on the ground. The team and I built the relay radios that Curiosity was going to use.
So you were in the control room when the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars. There must have been some really exciting moments then.
Yes, it was very exciting. One of the key issues with it as people might have remembered is at that point where Mars was versus Earth, it’s actually far enough that it takes a certain amount of time for light to travel. I mean we use radio frequency. It was actually 14 minutes at the time when we landed. And the thing that was kind of creepy was that whatever data we would see in the control room was 14 minutes old. It was weird to think like you know something bad or good could have happened or good. Anything could have happened but we wouldn’t know for 14 minutes.
How realistic is a movie like “The Martian” Matt Damon’s movie based on the book by Andy Weir?
Colleagues of mine who are way more engineer types than I say the big thing that people objected to and apparently even the author has agreed to is when they have the big storm and the rocket blows over. Yes, it can get very windy on Mars, but because the atmosphere is so thin, it can be going fast, but it’s sort of like if a baby pushed on you. That was the big thing that a lot of people objected to.
But the fact that he had to make do with what he had. The fact that they were using elements that were on Mars, that is the kind of thing that people will have to do when they actually do go.
You have been following India’s moon mission with Chandrayaan 2. Everything went almost textbook perfect until the last 2.1 km before they lost communication. What do you suppose happened?
I’ll tell you straight up that I don’t know. ISRO engineers are working on the data that came back. Chandrayaan 2’s orbiter is very successful. It did what it was supposed to do. The lander was experimental. It was going to parts of the moon that people haven’t really gone to before. My husband actually works at the tracking department at JPL – the telemetry.
As you said, we were watching that display and you can see where it’s supposed to go and you see where it’s going and you are like oh oh. I was texting my husband and he was like well, the signal doesn’t look good, the signal’s going in and out. If it was able to keep a good straight vector you would have expected the signal to be strong.
So at NASA do you have a lot of women working on these? Like for Chandrayaan, the project lead was a woman, the chief mathematician was a woman. Is it the same at NASA?
So when I started 30 years ago, there were not that many women. It was a different time, I’m not making excuses for it. For a long time, we talked about it. The US has the same issues as India and many other countries, where we are trying to get women into positions. Some of it is true that girls decide this is not a good job for them. It’s too hard, it’s not feminine. They get these bad impressions. There’s still a lot of that in play in the US at least, getting women into STEM.
In India, I’ve been super impressed. Some of the best questions and most enthusiastic ones I’ve got have come from young women who are asking about space. So we are getting better. My department last year hired over 50 percent of women of the people we hired for the year. And also from diverse communities.
Is there another planet out there that can support life or should we just clean up the one we have?
The obvious answer is we should clean up the one we have. Mars is the one we are looking at next. Honestly, when you look, it’s not Venus for obvious reasons. Too hot. Jupiter, again obvious reasons. The moon is not super interesting, there’s not a lot for us to work with. Mars is the obvious place to go and I will say hopefully not because we don’t learn how to take care of our planet, but just because humans are an exploratory bunch.
We are curious, we want to see for ourselves. So that should be the reason why we want to go to explore, not because we’ve given up on our house here.
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