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Mission to Mars

The engineers and scientists uncovering the Red Planet’s secrets
Photograph by Sami Drasin

N ASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena was buzzing with people as the countdown clock approached noon on November 26th. Eyes around the world were on engineers Julie Wertz Chen and Christine Szalai, who were working the main console in mission control, giving the play-by-play as the Mars InSight spacecraft began the “seven minutes of terror” — plunging through the atmosphere at 16 times the speed of sound to then softly land on the dusty Red Planet’s surface.

Only 40 percent of Mars landings have ever succeeded, and InSight just joined their ranks. “You can’t do a full test until you land on Mars, so we [had to] get confident enough to risk launching it,” says Wertz Chen, who had been leading simulations on the precision landing for months. It was only NASA’s second EDL attempt — entry, descent and landing — this decade, and the U.S. is still the only country to have successfully touched down on Mars. “It was definitely the experience of a lifetime,” says Wertz Chen.

The InSight mission is exceptional for another reason. Half of the core EDL team are women. “It happened very organically,” says Wertz Chen. “Everyone was brought on for their skills, and then someone said, ‘Hey, there are as many women here as there are men.’ ”

As of 2016, only 15 percent of NASA’s planetary missions were made up of women — up from an average of five percent before 2000. So InSight’s more diverse team was a not-so-small step for womankind at NASA. “It’s great to be on a team like this,” says geophysicist Sue Smrekar, InSight’s deputy principal investigator. “There are more women in leadership roles. It feels like we’re moving in a positive direction.”

We’re far from having the technology to send a crewed mission to Mars, which NASA started exploring via robot in 1975. The two-year InSight mission is the first to focus on the planet’s interior, using a heat probe and seismometer that can go 16 feet below ground to study “Marsquakes” and gather data on the planet’s geological history. As much as we know about Mars, we still are unclear about what the core of the planet is like, what it’s made of, how big it is and if it is still active. By understanding one of our closest planetary neighbors, it will help inform scientists about how the inner solar system formed, and what the future of Earth might be billions of years from now. It could also tell us about how long Mars may have been habitable in the past, and whether it could still be today.

“No one’s done what we’ve done before,” says systems engineer Farah Alibay. “My guidance counselor told me I shouldn’t be an engineer, because it was a male-dominated field and I’d struggle,” she says. Now, “I get to be the modern version of an explorer. I go to work to operate a robot on Mars.”

PICTURED: At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, some of the women working on the Insight mission in Mars.

Back row, from left: Farah Alibay (systems engineer), Emily Manor-Chapman (systems engineer), Annick Sylvestre-Baron (deputy project manager), Julie Wertz Chen (systems engineer), Sarah Elizabeth McCandless (navigation engineer), Pauline Hwang (mission operations lead) and Aline Zimmer (systems engineer).

Front row, from left: Sue Smrekar (deputy lead investigator), Marleen Martinez Sundgaard (lead test-bed engineer), Brooke Harper (systems engineer), Anne Marinan (systems engineer), Ingrid Daubar (planetary scientist) with Arthur (Baby), Hallie Gengl (image-processing team lead), Jaime Singer (systems engineer), Cinzia Fantinati (operations engineer), Cristina Sorice (robotics engineer), Elizabeth Barrett (instrument operations lead), Christine Szalai (systems engineer) and Louise Thomas (operations engineer).