Dr. Moogega “Moo” Cooper has been faced with the awesome responsibility to guard the galaxy … literally.
She is the planetary protection lead of the famed NASA Mars 2020 mission, and she told attendees to her Game Changer session at the ASAE 2021 Annual Meeting that the being part of an innovative culture that embraces new ideas with perseverance, curiosity and respect for the other professionals in the room is what led to a successful launch.
Planetary protection both preserves our ability to study other worlds as they exist in their natural state and prevents possible harm to Earth’s environment from returning spacecraft or samples. Cooper equated it to the mission for the National Park Service: “Leave no trace.”
The Mars 2020 mission took eight years from concept to launch, and six of those years were dedicated to assembling the rover in a clean way – they didn’t want any microbial hitchhikers riding into space that could impact their research.
The program delivered the most comprehensive planetary protection implementation to date. The rover itself was built in a clean room and wiped down piece by piece regularly. They took more than 16,000 samples over the years to ensure its cleanliness and wore “bunny suits” at all times to protect the equipment from the biggest risk of contamination: humans.
As a trailblazing engineer, Cooper shared five lessons that she said led her along her path to the launchpad:
- Maintain a child-like curiosity. The idea of landing on Mars certainly requires an imaginative spirit, as well as the ability to look at everyday objects not designed for spaceflight and to see them as a benefit to the mission. The cameras on the Mars 2020 lander were created using commercial off-the-shelf parts and hardware. That unconventional idea led to millions being able to watch the rover landing online on February 18, 2021.
- Rules were meant to be broken … or at least questioned. No, this doesn’t mean throw out the rule book. Sometimes the intent of a rule or standard needs to be questioned, which can be done respectfully and with the end goal of the mission in mind.
- Trust your team. Build a diverse team of capabilities, experience and voices beyond your own. Give credit, but also be prepared to own failures.
- Be risky. Balance being risk averse with taking calculated risks. Set up an infrastructure to incubate and implement new ideas. Dedicate funds to develop and test new ideas. A “do no harm” mindset can take you far by opening up the possibility of unexpected success.
- Have a common goal. Creative solutions and innovative new paths can still lead your team to the same destination. There’s no one right way to get somewhere.
Mission success has to remain the No. 1 goal of any project. For the Mars 2020 mission that included an on-time July 30, 2020 launch. The mission is proof of humanity’s ability to reach great feats if you approach each challenge without limitation.