Meet The Asian American 'Martians' Behind NASA's Perseverance Rover

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Ryan General
·5 min read
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The successful landing of the NASA Perseverance rover on Mars on Thursday after its 293 million-mile journey from Earth was made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from multiple disciplines, including several Asian Americans. Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) managed and operated in California by Caltech under NASA, employs a number of Asian American specialists who made notable contributions to the Mars 2020 mission.

Swati Mohan

Swati Mohan is an Indian American aerospace engineer and Guidance and Controls Operations Lead responsible for Perseverance. Mohan was tasked to ensure the spacecraft that carried the rover was properly oriented during its travel and upon its landing on Mars, according to her NASA profile. Mohan narrated the events from inside mission control, announcing, "Touchdown confirmed!" during the historic landing, reports CBS News.

"Perseverance will be the first mission to use Terrain-Relative Navigation,” Mohan explained according to KRTV. “While it’s descending on the parachute, it will actually be taking images of the surface of Mars and determining where to go based on what it sees. This is finally like landing with your eyes open. Having this new technology really allows Perseverance to land in much more challenging terrain than Curiosity, or any previous Mars mission, could." Mohan has been part of the Mars 2020 mission since it began in 2013. She has previously worked on the Cassini mission to Saturn and the pair of formation flown spacecraft to the Moon called GRAIL.

Allen Chen

Also working at JPL alongside Mohan is Chinese American systems engineer Allen Chen, who is currently the Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) Lead for the Mars 2020 project. As part of his role in the project, he co-led the joint science/engineering Mars atmosphere characterization team.

According to his bio profile on NASA, Chen conducted a number of advanced studies looking at landing capabilities, including opportunities such as Mars Sample Return architectures. During a NASA media briefing last month, Chen explained that the spacecraft carrying the Perseverance rover will have to "slow from down to supersonic speeds using a 70-foot diameter parachute while still traveling at almost twice the speed of sound."“Entry, descent and landing is the most critical and most dangerous part of the mission. Success is never assured. And that’s especially true when we’re trying to land the biggest heaviest and most complicated rover we’ve ever built,” Chen was quoted as saying.

Pauline Hwang

Pauline Hwang, who has worked for JPL for over 15 years, is the Strategic Mission Manager for Mars 2020 Surface Operations, her NASA profile revealed. Hwang has previously worked on the Dawn Project, which studied the protoplanets of the asteroid belt, the prior Mars rover missions — Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity — and, most recently, a Martian lander project called InSight, which reached the planet in 2018. In an interview with LA Parent, Hwang shared her experience in the space industry. "When I started working at JPL, it did not bother me that there were more males than females," she was quoted as saying. "My biggest challenge/epiphany was realizing that everyone, including me, has this internal unconscious bias of who could make a good manager (you automatically picture similar people who are currently managers) and how certain genders should behave in meetings. For example, it is accepted for a man to be loud, short and direct, but for a woman it can be poorly received and considered too blunt."

Ny Sou Okon

Ny Sou Okon is a Cambodian American flight system engineer who helped build the Perseverance rover alongside others at JPL, including her husband, who is also an engineer. Before she was born, Okon's family fled to Vietnam from their home in Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge, according to Press-Telegram. In 1984, when she was only 5 or 6, the family arrived in Texas. Her family eventually settled in Long Beach, where many Cambodians now live. She later went on to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering at UCLA.

Gregorio Villar III

Filipino American systems engineer Gregorio Villar III, who is head verification and validation engineer for the EDL phase of Perseverance, helped build and test a system that would land a car-sized rover on Mars. Villar also led an international council of atmospheric scientists to characterize the Martian atmosphere, according to PNA. Villar, who was awarded a NASA scholarship in his junior year of college, started his internship at JPL in 2010 and was hired full-time in 2012.

Numerous other Asians worked on the historic project in a variety of roles and capacity as listed on NASA's page here. Currently, on its 5th day on Mars, the Perseverance rover aims to look for past Martian environments capable of supporting life, seek out possible microbial life in those environments, collect rock and soil samples to store on the Martian surface and test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere to prepare for future manned missions. Feature Image via NASA

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