Exclusive: NASA’s Swati Mohan On Perseverance, Passion & Diversity

The Quint’s exclusive interview with Dr Swati Mohan who made history by landing NASA’s Perseverance Rover on Mars.

Updated
Image of Dr Swati Mohan, NASA scientist, and the Perseverance rover used for representational purposes.
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“I consider myself American, and I consider myself to be Indian too.”
Dr Swati Mohan, NASA, to Savita Patel for The Quint

Soon after NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars, an elated Indian couple in Florida received a call from their daughter. Srinivas and Jyoti Mohan were ecstatic as their daughter, Dr Swati Mohan, had just landed NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars.

“My parents were the first people I called... They were completely proud and overwhelmed!”
Dr Swati Mohan in a phone interview to Savita Patel for The Quint

Dr Mohan’s Indian American parents were definitely over the moon (and Mars). Their daughter, a PhD from MIT in Aeronautics and Astronautics, is the guidance and controls operations lead for NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance mission. She announced the news of the successful landing to the world: “Touchdown confirmed!”

Dr Swati Mohan at her station.
Dr Swati Mohan at her station.
(Photo: Twitter / @icancallubetty)

“It Was an Appropriate Moment to Dress Up For. I Decided to Wear a Bindi”

“Shout out to the @MITAeroAstro alumni flying @NASAPersevere to mars!"
“Shout out to the @MITAeroAstro alumni flying @NASAPersevere to mars!"
(Photo: Twitter / @DrSwatiMohan)

It took Dr Swati Mohan a few moments after the landing to feel the full weight of the accomplishment.

“I have to say that I was so focused on what I had to do... I made that touch down, and it took a few minutes to sink in after I made the touch down call. It slowly started to seep in... (now) Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life.”
Dr Swati Mohan to Savita Patel for The Quint

Enormous applause erupted at mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

In the seven minutes as the rover decelerated from 12,000 to 2mph, helped by a supersonic parachute and landed in a safe spot on Mars, Dr Swati Mohan became the face of the mission to the world on Earth.

The landing — and her bindi — both landed her new fans on social media.

Swati, two months before the Mars Perseverance rover made its landing on 18 Feb 2021.
Swati, two months before the Mars Perseverance rover made its landing on 18 Feb 2021.
(Photo: Twitter / @DrSwatiMohan)
“It was an appropriate moment to dress up for. I decided to wear a bindi. I don’t necessarily wear it every day, but I do wear it when I want to dress appropriately, when being seen by others, to look professional and look nice, to look presentable. I made sure to put it on before I left the house.”
Dr Swati Mohan to Savita Patel for The Quint

“My Parents Valued Education Above All Else”

“Powered on the Lander Vision System today! Woot! This is us after it finished already pouring over the data.”
“Powered on the Lander Vision System today! Woot! This is us after it finished already pouring over the data.”
(Photo: Twitter / @DrSwatiMohan)

Swati grew up in Washington DC and Virginia, after her parents moved to the US from Bangalore when she was only a year old. She attributes her passion for science to her parents.

“My family does have a strong work ethic and a commitment to education. My parents valued education above everything else, be it joining a special class or doing an internship. They both were in science and tech, and they supported me pursuing that.”
Dr Swati Mohan to Savita Patel for The Quint

She has played a critical role in NASA’s step towards exploration of life on the red planet. At home, Swati speaks Kannada, and is a practising Hindu. She lives in California with her husband and two children.

What does a typical day in Swati’s life look like? Here’s a glimpse:

Celebrating Diversity: “I Throw a Big Diwali Party...Everyone Celebrates Together”

Illustrating America’s diversity, the Perseverance rover team was made up of people from various cultures coming together to successfully execute this daunting mission. NASA is a multicultural organisation with scientists and engineers from various countries, ethnicities and races collaborating at multiple locations across the US. About 8 percent of NASA’s staff are AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders), which includes Indian Americans.

Dr Swati Mohan works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) along with many others of Indian descent.

“I can’t speak for all of NASA, but there are a lot of Indians and South Asians in JPL, so many on Perseverance herself. One of the things I do is to throw a big Diwali party, which includes colleagues from the Entry-Descent team at JPL. We bring Diwali to colleagues from other cultures and everyone celebrates together. We also celebrate many other heritages and traditions.”
Dr Swati Mohan to Savita Patel for The Quint
EDL team on landing day.
EDL team on landing day.
Photo Courtesy: NASA (JPL). 

NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover Landing: “A Huge Team Effort”

Swati has been working on the Mars Perseverance mission since its inception eight years ago. She missed half of her team during the final leg of this journey.

“The real team in the mission control today that successfully executed the manoeuvre.  I was just there to take pictures and do media stuff. #countdowntomars”
“The real team in the mission control today that successfully executed the manoeuvre. I was just there to take pictures and do media stuff. #countdowntomars”
(Photo: Twitter / @DrSwatiMohan)
“It was a huge team effort. The only not-so-nice-thing was that we had only half the team there. We had envisioned being there together, but could support only half the team for the final step, due to COVID protocol.”
Dr Swati Mohan to Savita Patel for The Quint
“Extremely successful shift for us today.  Rewarding ourselves with ice cream!”
“Extremely successful shift for us today. Rewarding ourselves with ice cream!”
(Photo: Twitter / @DrSwatiMohan)

Swati has made history, as NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is the first space craft to use ‘terrain relative navigation system’ technology to land. As the guidance, navigation, and control operations lead, she was involved in developing and executing the new system.

How NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover Landed: Dr Swati Mohan Explains

“This was the first craft to fly this system which has a new sensor that consists of a camera and a second brain. While Perseverance was on the para-shoot and decelerating, the camera took pictures of Mars. The second brain had preloaded images of Mars from earlier missions. The camera images are compared to the orbital map, to figure out where Perseverance should navigate, just like we compare street signs to a map when we navigate. This allowed for safe target selection — once you know where you are, you can choose where you want to go. Based on pre-entered data, she identified the terrain for safety levels — to avoid sharp, pointy rocks or cliffs. Perseverance could decide where to land, as she was coming down, she had the solution to where she was, where she was going and where she wanted to go. She looked and scanned between two regions and decided to land in a small strip area, in between two features of rocky areas. It was about 2 km south east of the target point- she was well within the landing target area.”
Dr Swati Mohan to Savita Patel for The Quint

“I Didn’t Think I Would be at NASA; Space Was Just a Hobby”

Space exploration always intrigued Swati, but she didn’t always want to take it up professionally. “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,” Dr Swati Mohan wrote in her NASA official bio.

“I didn’t think I was going to be at NASA. For the longest time, I always thought was I was going to be a paediatrician. Space was a hobby or interest. That is what I would do for fun, check out books about space – about the big bang theory, about how stars were formed. It was cool and exciting. Other parts fell together later.”
Dr Swati Mohan to Savita Patel for The Quint

To the millions of young girls and boys in India, her message is:

“Follow your passion, try to learn more about what excites you. I wouldn’t have dreamt that I was going to be doing this at NASA. Keep learning and exploring.”
Dr Swati Mohan to Savita Patel for The Quint

More than 3.5 million people saw Perseverance land on Mars, and the video of Swati’s team celebrating the achievement has gone viral. World leaders, scientists and others have commended Dr Swati Mohan for her achievement. What’s on Swati’s agenda in the coming days? Well, for the next few months, she’s going to be busy analysing data coming in from Mars. Swati also hopes to finally make the time to watch the Akshay Kumar-Vidya Balan-starrer ‘Mission Mangal’!

Click on this link if you want to send your name to Mars. on NASA’s next mission.

(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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