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

‘Touchdown confirmed’: Swati Mohan ’04 called Mars 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.

NASA mission control employees cheer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as the Perseverance craft landed safely on Mars, Feb. 18. Swati Mohan, foreground, stands next to Allen Chen, the mission's entry, descent and landing lead.

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.”

Swati Mohan offers the play-by-play of the Perseverance rover landing, in the final stages before the craft gently sets down, on Mars Feb. 18.

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Jeff Tyson