Swati Mohan is among the more than a dozen scientists and engineers of Indian-origin in Nasa’s Mars exploration team, attesting to the diversity of US scientific and technological prowess that rests largely on its expansive immigration history. Currently lead operations engineer of the the Mars 2020 Guidance, Navigation, and Controls (GN&C, which is the “eyes and ears” of the spacecraft), Swati came to America as one-year old with parents who emigrated from India. She grew up in the Northern Virginia-Washington DC metro area, itself a tech hub, and according to her NASA biography, wanted “to find new and beautiful places in the universe” after she was blown away by the beautiful depictions of space she saw on the TV serial “Star Trek” that she began watching at age nine.
“Actually, I wanted to be a pediatrician until I was about 16 years old. I was always interested in space, but I didn’t really know about opportunities to turn that interest into a job. When I was 16, I took my first physics class. I was lucky enough to have a great teacher, and everything was so understandable and easy. That was when I really considered engineering, as a way to pursue space,” she explains in her profile.
A Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Cornell University and her MS and PhD from MIT in Aeronautics/Astronautics followed before she joined Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where 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, including as its GNC operation’s lead at JPL in Pasadena, California.
“I’ve been on Perseverance longer than I’ve been at any school. I’ve been on Perseverance longer than my younger daughter is alive,” she told a local newspaper on Thursday. “It’s just taken up such a large portion of my life for so long.”
Mohan is among more than a dozen PIOs in the Mars mission mix that reflects the immense diversity of NASA, her contribution highlighted on a day the White House announced a sweeping immigration bill that would, among other proposals, ease the path to citizenship of tens of thousands of skilled Indian professionals currents on guest worker visas. Others involved in the mission at the senior level include Vandi Verma, chief engineer of Robotics Operations and Usha Guduri, lead of Activity Planning and Sequencing Subsystem,
Urban legend has it that people of Indian origin constitute some 35 per cent of Nasa personnel. While that hyperbolic figure is wildly off-mark, anecdotal accounts suggest some 5-10 per cent of Nasa’s engineering staff may be of Indian extract, although the organization does not keep an ethnic or racial score.
But it does recognize the value of diversity. “Diversity is a hallmark of Nasa – after all, we wouldn’t be the agency we are without it,” Clayton Turner, the first Black director of Nasa’s Langley Research Center said this week, adding, “People bringing different perspectives and skills together for the betterment of humankind is essential to our success.”
That diversity was also reflected in the black bindi that Swati Mohan was seen in, as she announced the touchdown, triggering memories among a generation that recalled the “dotbuster” era, when Indian women were harassed and ridiculed for wearing one.
listen.i wore a bindi through primary school and got bullied, physically bullied, for it. this is doing all kinds… https://t.co/s3v8f0DIWJ
— Anuradha Damale (@anulikesstars) 1613682196000
I wore bindi regularly in India & continued to do so in the US initially. But random folks sometimes stared/asked q… https://t.co/u28tQNs4Pl
— Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi (@sangeetha_a_j) 1613690655000
“I feel unreasonably happy about the NASA spokesperson for the Perseverence rover’s Mars landing being an Indian woman with a bindi! I wore bindi regularly in India & continued to do so in the US initially. But random folks sometimes stared/asked questions. So I stopped. My mom said I shouldn’t care, but I didn’t like unwanted attention. Today I decided to change that decision, and gave my lecture wearing one!” tweeted Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, an assistant professor in at University of California, Irvine.