The inspiring story of NASA's Nagin Cox, who has an asteroid named after her

Nagin Cox, Tactical Mission Lead on the Perseverance Rover, talks about the Mars 2020 Mission and being a woman in STEM.
Deena Theresa
Wearing her mission lanyards collected over 20 years at JPL.NASA/Dan Goods

Nagin Cox has had a better week than most of us. Come to think of it, all of us.

NASA's $2.7 billion robotic explorer named Perseverance, completed a year of operations on February 18, 2022. Cox, who is currently a Tactical Mission Lead on the Perseverance Rover and the Curiosity Rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, couldn't contain her excitement when IE caught up with her. "We had the chance to share stories of the rover's first year so it's been a really fun week," Cox tells us.

Cox is also sleeping better, now that she's working on a modified Mars time. For the uninitiated, a Martian day, referred to as sol, is approximately 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth. "Some of our days start a bit later than the others but we're thankful that we get to sleep during the Earth night which we didn't always get to do when we were starting out on the missions," she says.

It's not all Mars and games for Cox. A spacecraft operations engineer at NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for over 20 years, she has held leadership and system engineering positions on missions that include the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Kepler Space Telescope, NASA's first exoplanet hunter. She also has an asteroid named in her honor: 14061 Nagincox.

Accolades aside, Cox is also a trailblazer in several ways. A U.S. Department of State STEM Speaker, she has spoken to audiences around the world on the stories of the people behind the missions and the power of being a woman in STEM. She has had young women walk up to her and go 'Hey, I'm here because I heard your talk back when I was in junior high'. 

Today, February 24, on Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, Cox gives us a peek into Perseverance's highlights over the past year, her inspiration for joining NASA, and the importance of diversity and inclusivity in STEM. 

Excerpts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity

IE: What are the highlights of the Mars 2020 mission?

NC: For many of us, nothing beats landing day. Many of the past missions to Mars have not succeeded, so it is a matter of how the landing day goes, despite all the preparation you've done. So, that was an incredible start to the mission and since then, some of our highlights have been getting our first samples. We have taken up to six samples that are stored onboard the rover.

Perseverance is a rover that stands on the shoulders of the other rovers. The previous rovers — Spirit, and Opportunity — intended to find if there was liquid water on Mars, and the answer was yes. I've been fortunate enough to work on four out of five NASA rovers; Curiosity is still operating on Mars and I'm working on her as well. Her job was to find out if the water that was once there created an environment for life. And the answer to that is also a yes. So that leads us to Perseverance's job, whose mission is to search for past life at a microbial level on Mars. Also, we have increased autonomy on Percy, which can drive farther than other rovers. It has broken records for the single longest distance that we've driven in one year. These are wonderful milestones for the engineering and the science team. 

IE: How does Percy differ from the other rovers in terms of its science and tech toolbox?

NC: First off, Spirit and Opportunity were about the size of a golf cart, whereas Curiosity and Percy are much bigger. Perseverance has a toolbox that is uniquely selected to help us. One of the biggest differences from Curiosity is Percy's sample handling system. It can use the robotic arm, drill, and take a core.

Curiosity will pulverize the rock and turn it into a powder while here, we're trying to bring back intact cores. And then, in an entirely autonomous fashion, the rover has to process that sample right. We image it, weigh and create documentation, after which the sample is hermetically sealed. This sample tube will be stored and returned years later to Earth. This was brand new hardware development. 

This amazing mission is taking place in Jezero Crater, a spot on Mars that the scientists have wanted to go to for years. In this case, we could target it because we have improved our technology and landing precision. Then there's the Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN), which lets us understand the environment that we're in and avoid hazards. Perseverance can drive and think at the same time because we have this extra computer (TRN) that allows us to process the imagery of what's around us. These are examples of differences from prior rovers that have set us up to be able to take on this very challenging mission. 

IE: What were the engineering challenges you faced as a team?

NC: Well, one of the things is the fact that we were doing so much of our work remotely, given the COVID-19 environment. But thanks to the health care workers, the engineers, scientists, and technicians that were working at the Kennedy Space Center, we were able to conduct many of our preparations remotely and get the spacecraft ready for launch. Then, we had to operate the rover from the Earth to Mars, which was also done remotely. That was a very different cultural environment for us, especially when engineers were used to working together in person to solve problems. 

IE: I believe Percy has one more year to complete her tasks...

NC: You are right. And we certainly have an ambitious amount of driving that we want to do to get up to 15 kilometers and take up to 40 samples. We are well on our way to doing that. The first year involved getting to know Mars and now we're kind of in our groove, where we've completed the first exploration of the crater and found some remarkable indications that that entire area is an igneous rock, which will help us understand the history of the crater. Now we're going off to the delta that had a river. That's an amazing place to look for evidence of past habitability.

We'll have a very busy year ahead of us, and every reason to believe that this will not be our last year. Our rover was designed in terms of its mission lifetime of three Earth years but we have been very fortunate that most of our rovers have lasted well beyond their lifetimes. Spirit and Opportunity were supposed to last for 90 days and they lasted for six and 15 years respectively. This year will be the 10th anniversary of the landing of Curiosity, so we hope that Percy's useful scientific exploration life will be equally long and give us a chance to explore the Jezero crater, including its crater rim and the surrounding areas.

Written in the stars

Nagin as a young woman with her mother in 1983.
Nagin as a young woman with her mother in 1983.

IE: For the longest time, you knew that you wanted to be at NASA. Can you tell us more about wanting to choose this field?

NC: I was born in Bangalore, India. I came to the United States when I was extremely young and grew up in a household that was Muslim by tradition. And one of the things that I encountered fairly early on was there seemed to be a difference in the expectations of what the boys in my family would do. And for me, that was a bit of an eye-opener. Like, why are we finding ways to divide? Why can't I do it? Why the difference?

I was also fortunate enough to be growing up at a time when the Apollo missions were going on and the space shuttle missions were starting. I remember people reading the newspapers and watching the evening news about the mission. I was struck by how people all over the world were brought together by these missions of exploration and I thought, here's something that people do for all humankind.

And you know how melodramatic teenagers are, so I was like, oh, I want to do something for all humankind. And that was also why I wasn't interested in being an astronaut.

I was exposed to what the robots were doing and before we send people, we send robots. And so, I saw how these missions of robotic exploration were going places that no one had ever gone before and it sparked my imagination. It sparked my sense of doing something for the whole world, and at the time, there was one major location in the world that was responsible for the robotic exploration of the solar system -- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

And so I knew, at the age of 14, that that's where I wanted to work.

IE: You've previously mentioned Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Star Trek as inspirations. But did you have a female role model to look up to?

NC: I did, and you're right. Cosmos and Star Trek are involved but I think like many of us around the world, the most important female role model that I had was my mother. She was one of the first women in her province to get a Masters's degree. It only takes one person to encourage another and my mother was so broad-minded and encouraging when I showed interest in these areas that weren't traditional. In my household, my father wasn't so jazzed by this path, but my mom would whisper to me, "You could do anything". She passed away a few years ago. But even in my adult life, she would often say to me, "I don't quite understand what you do, but I'm so proud of you". I just don't know where I would be if I hadn't gotten that initial encouragement from her. And that's something that I always try to remember. All of us can inspire and support.

Star Trek was very progressive for its time. There were women of color on the bridge and Nichelle Nichols as the communications officer was clearly in the chain of command. Of course, that was science fiction but it cemented in my sense that in a hopeful future, it could be more inclusive.

And then it was Carl Sagan's original Cosmos series that had these amazing views of faraway places. At the end of Cosmos, it would say "Carl Sagan, Cornell University", and that's what made me decide as a 14-year old that I wanted to go to Cornell University and then work at JPL.

Cox driving the test rover Scarecrow in 2013 at JPL
Cox driving the test rover Scarecrow in 2013 at JPL.

IE: How would you encourage more women to get into STEM? What do you think is the biggest obstacle right now?

NC: I think that one of the biggest obstacles to getting into engineering and science is what we mentioned before - Having role models and being able to see yourself. Inclusivity starts with seeing diversity, which is a key to meeting our potential. The other thing is just believing in ourselves. There are so many voices out there that will say "that's not what girls normally do" or "you're so pretty, why do you need to go down that path". Some people have our futures planned for us. The first step is realizing that we can think for ourselves. We have the right to form our futures and goals.

IE: Women make up only about a third of NASA’s workforce, according to reports. Can you tell us how things have changed from the time you've joined and how do you see things changing in the future?

NC: That's a great kind of question to end, from my perspective. I came to NASA from the US military, where I was working in the Air Force. The number of women was [greater] at NASA than at the U.S. military. Since then, the number of women has just been increasing. But we still have quite a bit of work to do in terms of continuing to increase the number of women and women of color and from all kinds of backgrounds. 

A few weeks ago, we had our first female director of JPL join us. When she introduced herself to the JPL community, we [the women at JPL] were all surprised by how moved we were. I think we learned from that, that you get used to the status quo. We didn't even realize what a difference it would make until the day she said hello. The entire Slack channel that I was on dissolved into cheers. 

When you see a breakthrough moment like this you realize what a difference it does make to have diversity and inclusivity and people to share that with.

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