In yet another proud moment, NASA has successfully landed its Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021. Adding to the excitement was the way in which the rover landed on the planet as expected and the high-resolution image was taken during its landing. With an ever-transforming image of NASA from being the white man’s club to a more gender-inclusive workplace, the Mars 2020 mission is historic in more ways than one with quite a few women scientists and engineers on board. While Indian-origin Dr. Swati Mohan took the internet by storm for narrating the landing events from inside mission control as the Perseverance rover landed on Mars, another Indian gem from the team is space roboticist Vandana or ‘Vandi’ Verma.
The Chief Engineer for Robotic Operations for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, Verma was responsible for driving the Mars rovers – Curiosity and Perseverance – using software including PLEXIL – an open-source programming language now used in many automation technologies of NASA – that she co-wrote and developed.
Born and raised in Punjab’s Halwara, Verma grew up as an army kid as her father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force. Unarguably for a person who grew up in Punjab, she had once told the media that the first motorized vehicle she ever operated was a tractor. “I must’ve been 11 years old at the time,” she says. Now she drives rovers on the Red Planet – Curiosity which landed on Mars in 2012 and now Perseverance.
An electrical engineering graduate from Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh, Verma went to gain a master’s degree in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in the United States, followed by a Ph.D. in 2005. Her thesis was entitled ‘Tractable Particle Filters for Robot Fault Diagnosis’.
Verma’s Ph.D. helped her secure a job at NASA in 2007 and in 2008, she joined the Mars rover team.“I do realize that I possibly have one of the coolest jobs in the world,” she agrees. “I can honestly say I get up every day and go to work on Mars.”
Besides driving rovers on Mars, Verma also flies airplanes as she had bagged her pilot’s license while she was a student. Her research adviser at CMU, Reid Summons reportedly recounted her as being a dynamic, upbeat student. “ Unlike those who do their research and not much else, she was very sociable. She was an active member of the women in computer [science] society, flew planes, and did other outdoor activities during weekends,” he says. Other than being an avid pilot, the robotics enthusiast also frequents 'open house' events at the lab and online as a science communicator to encourage children (and particularly girls) into STEM careers.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)