Tensions ran high at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, on February 18. As the seconds ticked on, mission control members and those tuned in to live coverage across the nation waited anxiously for news of NASA’s latest endeavor in its Mars Exploration Program: the landing of the Perseverance rover.
“I think that space exploration gives us hope that there is an out from everything that we have to deal with on Earth,” says Kylie Auerbach ’22 concerning the importance of missions such as Perseverance.
“As we continue to damage our planet, without spending enough time focusing on preserving it, space exploration gives us a tiny glimmer of hope that we may one day have a ‘Plan B,’” she continued.
Perseverance launched on July 30, 2020, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. According to NASA’s Perseverance website, the rover’s main objective during its two year mission is to “Seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) for possible return to Earth.” Perseverance’s ultimate destination, the Jezero Crater on Mars, was picked in hopes of accomplishing these goals.
NASA’s website explains, “Scientists believe the area was once flooded with water and was home to an ancient river delta.”
Thanks to these conditions, some scientists believe microbial life could have possibly lived in the crater at some point, making it an ideal place for Perseverance to carry out its mission.
Additionally, Perseverance carries with it Ingenuity, a Mars helicopter that will be the first attempt at controlled flight on another planet, says the JPL website.
“The potential science that Percy could uncover is astounding,” states Jared Olson, a former senior flight controller and instructor at NASA Mission Control specializing in ISS Robotics. His current position is as operations engineer for the Space Security and Defense Program/USSF.
“I hope the mission finds evidence of ancient bacteria present when there was a lot of liquid water,” Olson continues. “I hope the mission’s success motivates and inspires other countries and younger generations to reach for the stars.”
At approximately 1:55 PM mountain time on February 18, wild cheers, enthusiastic clapping, and sighs of relief filled Mission Control. Perseverance had landed safely on Mars. Within minutes, the rover had transmitted its first few images back to Earth, with many more soon to follow.
“I see the landing as a triumph of humanity over the dangers of space, rather than just as the success of a specific NASA team,” says Olson. “I understand something of what it’s like to work on something this complex for many years, and I feel the team’s huge relief to see that their waiting is over and that of all the things that could go wrong, nothing did.”
“I think that it has so many critical applications that greatly contribute to our society,” Auerbach says regarding space exploration. “But we cannot discount the subconsciously escapist human nature that draws us to wonder about what is beyond.”
Over the summer, Auerbach had the opportunity to intern with Lockheed Martin, a global security and aerospace company that has played an integral role in a number of NASA missions, including Perseverance. Although Auerbach’s work did not directly relate to Perseverance, she had multiple experiences that allowed her to get a behind the scenes glimpse of what went into the mission.
“To me, the most fascinating part of the Perseverance rover is the testing that went into finding the best apparatus for particle detection,” Auerbach stated.
“On one of the tours I attended, an engineer explained his work on Perseverance,” she continued. “Mechanical engineers worked tirelessly on creating a robotic arm with a circle attached at the end with a mesh covering that would strap particles. One day in developing this arm, the engineers were using popcorn as their test particle, so the entire lab was filled with popcorn due to the quantity they needed for enough testing trials. I have always thought that this anecdote was so funny because it shows how important simple things are in accomplishing such big feats.”
Auerbach was introduced to the internship by Mr. Rudolph, a Heritage science teacher. After a lengthy hiring and interviewing process, she was one of the lucky 14 out of over 500 applicants who was hired.
“I can honestly say that it was truly the greatest experience of my life,” Auerbach remarked. “I learned so much, made great connections that I have been able to maintain throughout the school year, and was able to truly hone in on what I want to do with my life.”
“Working at Lockheed changed my preconceived notions about electrical engineering, and now I am planning on pursuing a career in this field– hopefully quantum mechanics,” she elaborated. “I learned that whatever career path I chose, I know I want to pursue a leadership position, and the skills I learned this summer will lend very nicely to this path!”
As Auerbach looks to her own future and possible career paths, Olson looks toward what Perseverance and future space exploration missions can mean for humanity.
“The more we can learn about the history of our solar system, the more we will learn about Earth,” Olson reflected. “There is something about the human spirit that ties us together in exploration. We’re not really living out our full humanity unless we are pushing the boundaries of the unknown.”
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