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Swati Mohan '04 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission control on Feb. 18, prior to the Perseverance landing.

All around the world, millions of people hushed on Feb. 18 to hear NASA aerospace engineer Swati Mohan ’04 calmly call the play-by-play of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover landing.

Mohan, who graduated with a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, described the capsule containing Perseverance as it entered the thin Mars atmosphere at 12,000 mph, briefly becoming a fast-flying fireball and then deploying a supersonic parachute.

The craft slowed and tossed its back shield away, while looking for a parking spot on the red planet. With the help of retrorockets and a sky crane, Perseverance slowed to a gentle 1.7 mph at Jezero Crater and came to rest.

“Touchdown confirmed,” Mohan said, at about 3:55 p.m. EST. “Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life.”

Instantly, the mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, jumped out of their seats, threw their arms in the air, breathed, cheered and finally smiled.

Mohan is the mission’s guidance, navigation and controls operations lead, effectively the eyes and ears of the spacecraft on its seven-month, 300 million-mile cruise to Earth’s neighboring planet.

During the long journey, during which the craft averaged around 48,000 mph, Mohan and her colleagues made sure the spacecraft was pointed correctly in space. Other Cornell alumni at mission control included Aaron Stehura ‘09, M.Eng. ‘10 and Kevin Lo ‘13, M.Eng. ’14.

Mohan, who received her master’s and doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has received media and social media notoriety as a result of Perseverance. She started her Twitter account in July 2020, about two weeks before the mission’s launch on July 30 from Cape Canaveral. Currently, she has more than 34,000 followers.

The day after the Mars landing and her call of the action, news stories about her popped up.

CNN featured, “The face of the Perseverance landing was an Indian American woman”; CNET posted, “Meet NASA’s Swati Mohan, star of Perseverance rover’s epic Mars landing: The cool, collected play-by-play from one of the mission’s leaders has observers around the world taking notice.”

USA Today saw Mohan as “‘Truly America at its best.’ NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance landing a salute to diversity.” And Newsweek asked, “Who is Swati Mohan? NASA scientist who commentated on Mars rover landing gains new fans.”

In a NASA/JPL interview, Mohan said that, in terms of her career, she’s fulfilling a dream.

“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,” she said. “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.”

(2) comments

Richard Ballantyne

As an engineer, I can appreciate and understand the hard work and ingenuity required to successfully develop and deploy the hardware and software technologies used to get the Perseverence to Mars, and to perform science experiments there. There are million good reasons why engineers burst out in jubilation the moment they are notified of a successful landing like that of Perseverence. What an incredible feat!

I work with engineers of different races, ethnicities, and genders almost every weekday. Most of my coworkers happen to be foreign born non-whites, but that is only because whenever we interview people to hire, those tend to be the types of individuals who demonstrate being the most qualified and interested. Since time and money are scarce resources, and since we must compete in a timely fashion with other companies to design and manufacture products as quickly as possible, we cannot afford to hire less qualified and less motivated individuals if there are more qualified/motivated individuals available and willing to work for us. Since the race, gender, and ethnicity of engineers has zero impact the products our company outputs, we have no incentive to even consider discriminating based on these factors. What does make a difference to the happiness of our customers and the size of our profit margins is how well our employees perform their job functions.

The point I'm trying to make is this: I don't understand how so overtly and repeatedly highlighting immutable characteristics, such as the race, gender, and/or ethnicity of individuals is productive in cases such as the one discussed in this particular article. What it may accomplish, is make the reader question whether or not the individual was hired and/or promoted in part based on said immutable characteristics. Isn't making hiring and promotion decisions based on race/gender immoral, except in a few rare cases such as women's sports, or other fields where biological differences really do matter? What I am seeing so often now, and in nearly every facet of life is some variant of "this person is black, therefore x", "y bad thing happened, and by the way this person is male", and "this great thing happened...and the person who was involved was an American Indian". Why the heck is there so much focus on race/gender? Whatever happened to notion that correlation is not causation? Why not just judge people as individuals and not based on their group identity or immutable characteristics whenever those factors have zero impact on the situation (i.e. maybe all the time)? How is drawing so much attention to the race/gender/ethnicity of individuals _not_ racist/sexist/bigoted? Imagine how this article would read if you merely replaced the gender and races with certain other combinations. Try for example, replacing female/woman with male/man, and American Indian with white or Asian. My point is this: If there exists any other combination of race/genders that would make an article seem racist/sexist/bigoted, then logically wouldn't that make the article racist/sexist/bigoted? Please help me understand, without changing the definition of the terms "racist", "sexist", and "bigoted", why this wouldn't be the case.

Richard Ballantyne

An insightful child in my household just said to me, "I don't think Perseverence cares about the ethnicity or gender of its creators." Why should we?

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