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Mars Mission: NASA Diversity Perseverance pays off

The mission indicates that since its inception in the 1950s, the US Space Agency NASA has made considerable strides in hiring diverse talent.

NASA made history in February with the successful landing on Mars of a car-sized robotic explorer and his counterpart: a small helicopter that recently proved powered flight is possible even in Mars’ thin atmosphere.

Together, this dynamic pair will unlock the Red Planet’s secrets. The Ingenuity helicopter is due to make a second, more complicated flight next week.

NASA Perseverance pays off - Cosmos Magazine

Meanwhile, the Perseverance rover has shown that it undoubtedly has MOXIE in more ways than one—its Mars Oxygen In-Situ Use Experiment (MOXIE in short) extracted carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and turned it into oxygen.

This has significant consequences for potential moon and Mars astronaut flights, which would require oxygen as fuel components and breathing crews.

Aside from amazing science and technology presentations, the Perseverance mission makes history in another way: by exemplifying diversity within NASA, the U.S. Space Agency.

Representation of rovers

The mission face is Swati Mohan, an Indian-American aerospace engineer who first announced that on February 18, the Perseverance rover had successfully landed on Mars.

“Touchdown verified,” she declared to roaring applause from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Safe perseverance on Mars’ surface, ready to begin to seek signs of past existence.”

Mohan was at the front of the control room during the landing sequence, supplying the team with continuous updates and acting as the mission’s commentator.

Before she was the mission’s face, Mohan worked for years to make it happen as part of the entry, descent and landing team.

Not only is she leading the guidance and controls for the rover mission, she is a sign of NASA’s progress towards diversification. Mohan is an Indian-American who, as a teenager, moved from India to the US, growing up dreaming of space.

Star Trek opened her world to universe elegance. But she didn’t plan to be an engineer until she took her first physics lesson. The decision led her to help NASA explore various solar system regions.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’ll do that. I want to discover new and amazing places in the universe, “she told Al Jazeera during last summer’s Mars Perseverance launch. “Space vastness holds so much intelligence, and we started scratching the surface.”

NASA's Perseverance rover on its way to become fifth rover on Mars – its  science objectives, instruments, the Ingenuity helicopter- Technology News,  Firstpost

Though Mohan may have helped guide the rover in the right direction on his journey to Mars, she and her teammates are also an example of how NASA’s decades-long drive to diversify pays off.

To boldly Go

The drive began in the 1970s, thanks partly to Star Trek. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the iconic TV show, led a campaign to help NASA hire a new crew of astronauts to fly its burgeoning shuttle programme.

Nichols travelled in hopes of diversifying NASA’s astronaut corps. When the agency opened, the space flyer corps was limited to one group: military pilots. But with a fleet of ready-to-start space shuttles, NASA will require several more astronauts.

She helped attract more diverse people, including many women and minorities like Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Guion Bluford, Ronald McNair, Mae Jemison, and Ellison Onizuka.

Nichols also targeted others the military may have ignored in their astronaut recommendations, including three-time shuttle astronaut Fred Gregory, who served as a U.S. Air Force colonel.

During this time, NASA’s people sent into space started to come from more diverse backgrounds and were able to bring new skill sets to the table. Most hires were still white males, but this was a turning point for the organisation, as people across the world could see themselves reflected in missions.

The space shuttle has since retired, but NASA’s effort to be more inclusive has only gained traction, as shown by recent astronaut choices from the agency.

In 2013, for the first time in history, half of the class was made up of women.The next chosen community was much more diverse, with a variety of ethnicities.

NASA also seeks to place a woman on the first lunar mission, but also a person of colour. The mission is part of NASA’s Artemis lunar program, and it is the first time in history that either has traveled further than the International Space Station.

These kinds of drives would not be feasible if not for missions like the Perseverance rover, where the world could see a huge number of people needed to make a project possible.

Mohan may be the voice that kept us all updated, but the crew behind the historic spacecraft is led by diverse team members, including landing lead Allen Chen and engineers Moogega Cooper, Cj Giovingo and Gregorio Villar, who break barriers as leaders from different ethnicities and the LGBTQ community in their profession. Their presence reflects NASA’s continued success on the diversity front.

Space for all

NASA also helps encourage other agencies to advocate for more diverse teams and provide opportunities for more people to fly into space. With the introduction of its commercial crew programme, NASA and its partners ensure more astronaut flights will get off the ground, allowing more astronauts to be recruited.

“There’s a drive for more diversity with all the various players involved and the emerging commercial industry,” NASA astronaut Jessica Meir told Al Jazeera. “That’s how we’re on spaceflight.”

Meir was one of two astronauts whose first class in 2013 was a 50/50 split between males and females. She was also on the first all-female spacewalk in 2020 with fellow astronaut Christina Koch.

“I think giving more people access to space would propel us in the right direction,” she said.

NASA recruits astronauts every few years, while other organisations, such as the European Space Agency (ESA), hire about once a decade.

With SpaceX flying routine space station crew flights, ESA recently announced it needs more astronauts. In particular, the department is looking at hiring the first disabled career astronaut.

“We’re starting a new selection campaign for astronauts,” Frank de Winne, ESA, told Al Jazeera. “We need a more diverse astronaut corps.”

He said the department is conducting a feasibility analysis to see whether it is possible to involve disabled people in their selection process. ESA examines the ability to get in and out of the capsule quickly in case of an emergency. But the department is serious about being able to select more candidates.

“We want that person to be a trained astronaut, not just a one-flyer,” Winne said. “We want to take that step and we need to discuss it from a crew-safety perspective.”

NASA’s diversity and inclusion office said its success is the product of its outreach programmes.

Among them were annual college engineering competitions focusing on minority-serving organisations, said Kim Orr of NASA’s STEM office (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

“As an organisation, NASA will target those communities to give students access to NASA employees and a valuable resource to continue their careers,” Orr told Al Jazeera.

However, in recent years, NASA’s education budget has taken a hit. But the agency is optimistic that the administration of new US President Joe Biden can help to reinforce some of those efforts so that the agency will continue to attract the best and brightest to “dare mighty stuff.”

Much progress remains to be made, but NASA’s workforce now looks much more like the nation it serves.

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