As NASA scientists cheered the landing of its newest robotic explorer on Mars, some viewers were looking around the control room.
“So many amazing people have worked on the Perseverance rover and it’s great to see the diversity of people in STEM being highlighted on the @NASA live stream tonight! #spaceisforeveryone #stemisforeveryone,” one person said on Twitter.
“Amazing to watch mission control in action. Such a diversity of age groups, race, sex,” another tweeted. “Truly America at its best.”
For an agency that has long been seen in movies, TV shows and in its own landing broadcasts as being predominantly built of white men, the Perseverance control room provided a striking new look for NASA.
In recent years, NASA has come a long way from its first diverse class of astronauts in 1978. On Thursday, many in the team of engineers that guided Perseverance on its journey were women and people of color. And most have worked for a decade to pull it off.
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It was Swati Mohan, an Indian scientist in the front row, with a bindi on her forehead, who explained to viewers the rover’s mission milestones. She was the guidance, navigation and controls operations lead.
When Perseverance was safely on the surface of Mars, Mohan announced, amid cheers, “Touchdown confirmed.”
“I’ve been on Perseverance longer than I’ve been at any school. I’ve been on Perseverance longer than my younger daughter is alive,” she told USA TODAY Network newspaper Florida Today. “It’s just taken up such a large portion of my life for so long.”
Mohan emigrated from India to the United States when she was 1, per her NASA profile, receiving her PhD in Aeronautics/Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She has also worked as an engineer on multiple other NASA missions, to Saturn and the moon.
Still, NASA has catching up to do on diversity: Recent employment numbers show 72% of NASA employees are white, with 12% Black, 7% Asian American, 8% Latino and 1% American Indian. Meanwhile, only 34% of NASA employees are women.
But, NASA recognizes the value of diversity.
“Diversity is a hallmark of NASA – after all, we wouldn’t be the agency we are without it.” Clayton Turner, the first Black director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in a February statement.
Contributing: Rachael Joy, Florida Today