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NASA Scientist Discusses Her Work On The Perseverance Mars Rover Project

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Perseverance pays off. That's what we learned when the NASA rover landed on Mars last week. And a payload systems engineer who worked on the project, 30-year-old Christina Hernandez, probably feels the same way. After the Mars rover landed, she tweeted, I had a cryfest con la familia - with my family - ate a warm bowl of frijoles negros. That's black beans. And now she said she's ready for science. She joins us from Pasadena to tell us more about her work and the mission.

Welcome to the program.

CHRISTINA HERNANDEZ: Thank you so much for having me. I'm super excited to be with you all today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. How long have you been working on the Mars project? What's your role been?

HERNANDEZ: So I've been working as a payload systems engineer for nearly six years now, and it has been wonderful every step of the way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So for people who don't know what that is, what is that?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. So it's an exciting job because as an engineer, specifically a payload systems engineer, I get to be right at the interface with the engineering and the design of our scientific tools or science instruments. So I get to learn about how things are built, how they'll work, how they'll be operated on Mars but, most importantly, how we're going to get that really cool science once we're on Mars.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what did it feel like? You know, Perseverance has landed. I mean, you've been working towards this for a while.

HERNANDEZ: Absolutely. So this mission has really been everything to me. It's the first thing that I've ever sent to space, let alone Mars. And I really see this project as the face of my familia, as you mentioned, my co-workers, my colleagues, my advocates, my mentors throughout the way. And I'm just so excited to start discovering this planet in a new way with the cutting-edge science that we're going to be able to do and, most importantly, the really cool samples that we're going to be able to bring back one day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. What are you hoping to learn?

HERNANDEZ: So I'm hoping to learn about myself as well. You know, what does it take to be a technical engineer and a Martian working the night shift, getting this rover ready for science? But I'm also really looking forward to having PIXL look for signs of ancient life on this Jezero crater or having MEDA, which is one of the Spanish instruments, taking weather samples of the crater and characterizing the microclimates of Mars. And every single instrument is so special in so many ways because it's just going to give us a different perspective of Mars. And

you know, we're working right now to turn these instruments on for the first time and check if they've survived a landing. And after we'd go through our commissioning phase, we'll be able to do science for the first time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your enthusiasm is infectious, let me say, as one space nerd, clearly, to another.

HERNANDEZ: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In another one of your tweets, you wrote this in Spanish. (Speaking Spanish). They wanted to bury us, but they didn't know we were seeds. Tell me why you wrote that.

HERNANDEZ: Oh, man. It's hard to not tug at the heartstrings every time I hear that because, you know, my family came from Mexicali and Guadalajara with my grandparents. And my parents were really the explorers of education and engineering for my dad. And to me, you know, no matter what obstacles came our way, they grew. They managed to find that inner grit, that perseverance, if you will, and move themselves and, most importantly, our family forward.

And so by us landing on Mars, for me and for mi familia, this is really us growing into being now on a different planet, right? You know, I can say that familia Diaz (ph) and familia Hernandez is now on Mars. And so when I hear that quote, it really, you know, rings true to all of the strength that our families have had in pushing us and allowing me the privilege to work for NASA and to work on this amazing mission.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are obviously Latina. But there are other Latinas on this team with you, like flight director Diana Trujillo. Hearing your story, you know, STEM fields are so often talked about as not being diverse enough, that they are not accepting of women. What do you hope people see in your accomplishment?

HERNANDEZ: I hope they realize how much of a mistake that type of philosophy ever was because if you ever wanted to get something done, my grandma often says (speaking Spanish) or - which means, like, you know, give it your all. That is every single, you know, Latina that I've ever worked with, you know?

So the way I see it is I see NASA and the entire aerospace industry is really going through this revolution of these up-and-coming engineers and leaders who have a vision for a more inclusive and transparent future and, more importantly, once you get to the top, being able to pull up others behind you - right? - so we can continue to grow together and to continue to better ourselves. But really, when you have people who have gone through obstacles, that level of grit, that level of scrappiness to just get things done - you know, I haven't seen it anywhere else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A reminder that behind every big accomplishment, there are so many stories. That's NASA engineer Christina Hernandez, one of the many people behind the Mars Perseverance mission.

Thank you very much. (Speaking Spanish).

HERNANDEZ: Thank you all - really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.