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'You Can't Be What You Can't See': Indian-Origin Women Leading the Space Race Hope to Inspire Young Girls

Vandi Verma/Swati Mohan. Credits: Twitter.

Vandi Verma/Swati Mohan. Credits: Twitter.

NASA rover operator Vandi Verma and Dr Swati Mohan who controlled the landing of Perseverence hope they inspire younger women into STEM.

NASA’s Perseverence rover is finally on Mars, and on Earth, two Indian-origin scientists are over the moon – Swati Mohan and Vandi Verma.

“When Mars is visible in the sky you look at that little dot and you think right now there’s a robot out there doing commands that I told it to do. That’s pretty wild,” NASA rover operator Vandi Verma told Reuters.

Verma who describes her job as “one of the coolest jobs in the world” is the NASA rover operator for Perseverence. She hopes women’s high profile in the latest Mars mission will inspire a new generation to pursue careers in a sector traditionally dominated by men.

Verma’s colleague Swati Mohan made headlines around the world when she narrated the nail-biting landing of the Perseverance rover on the Red Planet following its perilous descent through the Martian atmosphere.

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“It’s definitely inspired girls everywhere. It’s opened people’s perceptions of who can be a space engineer,” Verma further told Reuters.

Indian-American Dr Swati Mohan spearheaded the development of attitude control and the landing system for the rover — “Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life,” exclaimed NASA engineer Dr Swati Mohan.

The Perseverance Rover was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on July 30, 2020 — made its landing on an ancient river delta in a lake that once filled Jezero Crater.

According to NASA, Dr Mohan had emigrated from India to the United States at the age of 1. She grew up in Northern Virginia-Washington DC metro area and later completed her B.S from Cornell University in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering. She went on to receive her M.S. and Ph.D from MIT in Aeronautics/Astronautics. She has worked on multiple missions such as Cassini (mission to Saturn) and GRAIL (a pair of formation flown spacecraft to the Moon). She has worked on Mars 2020 since almost the beginning of the project in 2013 and is currently working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA.

At the age of 9, after having watched ‘Star Trek’ for the first time, Dr Mohan was quite astound with the beautiful depictions of the new regions of the universe that they were exploring. She had immediately realised that she wanted to do that and “find new and beautiful places in the universe.” Simultaneously, Mohan also wanted to become a pediatrician until she was 16. It was however, her first physics class and the “great teacher” she got, that she considered “engineering” as a way to pursue her interest towards space exploration.

Verma, who has been driving rovers on Mars since 2008, said the latest mission would help answer questions “that change what we know about our place in the universe”.

Born in India, Verma studied electrical engineering at Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh before moving to the United States, where she gaining a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University.

When she joined NASA in 2004, female engineers often found themselves the only woman in the room, she said. But things are changing.

NASA, which aims to land the first woman on the moon by 2024, is on a mission to boost diversity. Women made up 34% of the workforce in 2019, holding 18% of senior scientific posts, about treble the figure for 2009, according to the agency.

Verma said it was very exciting to see an increasing number of applications from women, adding that diverse teams led to more “creative, out-of-the-box thinking”.

British space engineer Vinita Marwaha Madill – founder of Rocket Women, which aims to inspire women to choose STEM careers – said role models were vital.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she told Reuters, quoting astronaut Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space.

“Seeing someone that looks like you allows you to believe that it’s possible to achieve your goals,” said Marwaha Madill, whose own passion took flight after watching Helen Sharman become the first British astronaut in space in 1991.

Women like Mohan, the Mars mission’s guidance and operations lead, will “inspire the next generation to reach for the stars”, she said.

A 2018 NITI Ayog report ‘Status of Women in Science among Select Institutions in India’ finds that there are more women than ever are enrolling in the field of science. However, women do not continue in the field of science for very long.

(With inputs from Reuters)