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Advice from a guardian of the galaxy

“When we send spacecraft out to Mars or Europa, we don’t know whether or not our Earth germs can have a positive or negative ecological impact,” said Moogega Cooper, a planetary protection engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda)

As the lead of planetary protection for the Mars 2020 Mission, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Planetary Protection Engineer Moogega Cooper is known as a real-life guardian of the galaxy. During her talk at the U of R on April 6, she illustrated the level of cleanliness a spacecraft needs to meet before launch by looking to the Greek Theatre.

After measuring the theatre’s dimensions, calculating the mathematical equation used to determine cleanliness, and scaling bacterial microbes to the size of poppy seeds, she revealed that only half of one poppy seed-sized microbe could exist in the entire theatre to make it safe for space exploration.

“That’s the maximum requirement for our spacecraft,” she said. “Most of them are actually 10 times cleaner than that requirement. Hopefully, that gives you a tangible example of how ridiculously clean [it is], and the amount of heroics that the engineering team went through to put it together.”

According to the NASA Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, planetary protection is the practice of protecting solar system bodies from contamination by Earth life and protecting Earth from possible life forms that may be returned from other solar system bodies.

“When we send spacecraft out to Mars or Europa, we don’t know whether or not our Earth germs can have a positive or negative ecological impact,” Cooper said, after explaining that the human body is a repository for trillions of bacterial microbes. “We’ve all been through the pandemic, so we know how things can spread. The goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Before her talk, Cooper met with students. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda)

As a result, much of Cooper’s work includes the supervision of equipment sterilization to ensure that everything is as clean as possible during the assembly and launch process. She outlined what that looks like on a daily basis by displaying photos of NASA employees assembling the Mars rover while wearing protective “bunny suits,” goggles, and gloves. 

While she admitted that space exploration takes a village, both within JPL and across global boundaries, Cooper’s work led to the successful launch and landing of the Mars rover in 2020. Currently, the rover is traversing the face of the planet and collecting samples that will eventually be brought back for analysis to determine if life ever existed on Mars.

Even though much of Cooper’s work involves intricate mathematical equations and engineering, she shared some big-picture ideas to motivate members of the audience, regardless of their career aspirations.

  • Maintain your childlike curiosity. Cooper noted that the idea for Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter that landed with the rover, was born out of a question. The helicopter tests powered, controlled flight on another world for the first time.
  • Rules are meant to be questioned. “Don’t be afraid to push the limits,” Cooper said, leading into the importance of her next point:
  • Trust your team. “A lot of people build a team of amazing people, and then they don't trust them to be an amazing people that they are,” she said, noting that, if people are asking questions and bending the rules, they must be trusted in the process.
  • Take calculated risks. Cooper encouraged the audience to leave room for failure, because that’s often an experience that makes people grow.
  • Have a common goal. Combining all of her previous points, Cooper said that teamwork led to the fulfillment of many goals during the Mars rover mission.

Her talk was sponsored by Associated Students of University of Redlands (ASUR). “Dr. Cooper is a role model for everyone, especially women in science and technology,” said Sintia Marquez Jimenez ’22, ASUR vice president of convocations and lectures.

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