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Perseverance Reaches Mars: A Colombian Behind Nasa’s Space Mission That Explores The Red Planet To Search For The Origin Of Life

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Diana Trujillo was 17 years old and had the US $ 300 in her pocket when she arrived in the United States from Colombia. For years he cleaned houses to pay for his studies and go on to graduate in aerospace engineering. The NASA engineer is currently the flight director for the Mars 2020 mission which on February 18 will deposit Perseverance, the most advanced rover or rover or robot explorer ever sent into space on the Martian surface.

The robot will not only search for evidence of past life and collect rock samples that will be returned to Earth on a future mission. It will also test pioneering technologies that will be key to a future human presence on the red planet. spoke with Diana Trujillo about the objectives of the Mars 2020 mission the five senses of Perseverance and why seeking validation in others is one of the great obstacles to getting ahead in life. Your role is Mars 2020 Flight Director, what does that mean?

WHEN WE REACH THE SURFACE OF MARS, DIFFERENT GROUPS WILL OPERATE THE ROBOT.

One of these groups is the flight directors, there are four of us, and the flight directors are responsible for leading the group that does all the analysis of the robot, of what information it is giving us. If there are problems, we analyze what we have to do to recover the robot and be able to say if we are ready for the next day and we can command it or not. Different groups have different levels of work. There is a mechanical engineering group that did all the design of the robotic arm by hand and the instruments it carries.

What my group did is that once the mechanical design was done, and also the electronic design, we took that part and integrated it with the software design to make sure that when you command the robot it does what it has to do. My group had to evaluate and do all the tests to show that what the robotic arm and hand and instruments did was exactly what they were designed for. I really like the name we use for the robotic arms because it is like your arm, your hand your wrist, and your fingers.

Between the robot’s fingers are two instruments, one called SHERLOC and one called PIXL. Those two instruments need the robotic arm to put them close to the rock so they can scan and identify if there was ever life on the surface of Mars. These instruments have to reach five mm from the rock at certain times to study the places where there is more possibility of past life and determine what are the chemical elements in those places. A novelty is that Perseverance has microphones, many may wonder what they expect to hear. I would ask myself the question in the opposite way, why not? Every time we explore the planets we think practically in the five senses, I want to see, I want to touch, so why not want to hear?

And there is an instrument that you can even think of as taste because once we drill into the rock Perseverance can encapsulate specimens in tubes and then store them inside the robot. It’s almost as if he is putting them inside his stomach. We have tried to think: what can we do to maximize the perspective a person would have if they were on the surface of Mars? The robot will go to a place that NASA will decide to leave the tubes on the surface, waiting for the next mission¬† Mars sample return mission or Mars sample return mission.

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The next mission is the one that will collect the tubes and return them to Earth, the expectation is that this will happen between 2031 and 2038. You also worked at Curiosity, the rover robot that arrived on Mars in 2012. What are the differences between Curiosity and Perseverance and what are the questions that each is trying to solve? To make an analogy, imagine that you are traveling by car. I like to travel in the car to know. When you are traveling in the car you get off and see a house where people used to live.

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That is what Curiosity did, get out of the car and say, here is a house, Curiosity answered the question of whether there were conditions infrastructure, or chemical composition on Mars to sustain life. But then going back to the analogy of the car ride, you start to wonder who lived in the house, what that person would be like. So the question Perseverance is trying to answer is whether there was life on the surface of Mars or not. Once we found the house, did someone live there? That is the difference. Every time we send out a mission there is a next step and more technology. I am going to give you some examples.

With Perseverance, we are going to take the first helicopter we have ever taken to any planet. I was still here on Earth, when I watched the Superbowl and they showed the drones with cameras I said what a cool perspective. Now imagine that on the surface of Mars. Another technology has to do with this question when we bring humans to the surface of Mars, how are we going to sustain them? So there is an instrument called MOXIE that is going to create oxygen from CO2 or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

By having a common goal, we think about how we can get there in the most efficient way. So we don’t think about who had the idea, if you did it or I did it, if she said it, blah blah blah. You end up thinking about what you want to do and you don’t get distracted as I would say with nonsense, which makes you waste your time. It’s extremely cool because you forget the time, you are totally dedicated to what you are doing it is as if you are watching a movie and you do not realize what time it is. The magic is that you can take an idea and focus on improving it and the idea becomes more and more complex but more possible.

WHEN I SPEAK OF MAGIC, IT IS THE MOMENT WHEN YOUR IDEA PLUS MINE, MORE HERS, MORE HIS, MORE THAT OF ALL THE OTHERS COME TOGETHER, STICK TOGETHER, INSTEAD OF BEING AN IDEA THAT TAKES AWAY.

To make an analogy, it is as if one were adding with legos, and one was putting legos on top of each one instead of taking a lego and removing it to put another so that no one gets anywhere. Tell us about your arrival in the United States from CaliI came to the United States when I was 17 years old and I didn’t have many resources. One of the reasons why I came was the expectations of what society was telling me to do, I was not interested in that and I said to myself no it can’t be.

The unfortunate expectation in my perspective of what the woman has to do and how she has to look and how she has to behave and what are the aspirations of a woman. I felt that to do what I wanted I had to fight all of this and show everyone that I can do more. I felt: I’m wasting my time, distracting myself trying to convince the other person that I am capable of doing something.

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I know that I am capable of doing something, so it is not that I cannot, it is the environment that has to change. Looking back, I realize that was why I had to come here. It was born above all because the year I was born in Colombia there were a lot of conflicts, unfortunately, and every time we talked about going out to the street we had the conversation of what happens if there is a stray bullet and you are outside and you cross yourself. We always had that conversation in Cali if you hear that you throw yourself on the floor if this happens you do another thing. My brother was four years old, my other brother was eight, and me twelve. It is a very heavy conversation to have with children, but you have to talk about it because suddenly you die.

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So thinking about that and thinking it can’t be that life is like this for me the way to clear away or detach myself from all that was to lie down on the grass and look at the sky at night. and you calm down in one go because there’s nothing else going on. It’s funny because I just told you there is nothing else happening but everything is happening, the planets have to be in the place where they have to be they are moving, everything is happening but in order and immense peace and I wanted to understand how it all works.

IS IT TRUE THAT YOU CAME TO THE UNITED STATES WITH $ 300 IN YOUR POCKET?

Yes, when I arrived I did not know English and had the US $ 300 in my pocket. I started working as a domestic worker while I was getting money to pay for my English classes. I had four jobs so I could get more money to pay for college and that’s where I started and went to college to study space science and eventually aerospace engineering. It was born above all because the year I was born in Colombia there were a lot of conflicts, unfortunately, and every time we talked about going out to the street we had the conversation of what happens if there is a stray bullet and you are outside and you cross yourself. We always had that conversation in Cali, if you hear that you throw yourself on the floor if this happens you do another thing. My brother was four years old, my other brother was eight, and me twelve. It is a very heavy conversation to have with children but you have to talk about it because suddenly you die.

So thinking about that and thinking it can’t be that life is like this for me the way to clear away or detach myself from all that was to lie down on the grass and look at the sky at night. and you calm down in one go because there’s nothing else going on. It’s funny because I just told you there is nothing else happening but everything is happening, the planets have to be in the place where they have to be they are moving, everything is happening but in order and immense peace and I wanted to understand how it all works.

IS IT TRUE THAT YOU CAME TO THE UNITED STATES WITH $ 300 IN YOUR POCKET?

Yes, when I arrived I did not know English and had the US $ 300 in my pocket. I started working as a domestic worker while I was getting money to pay for my English classes. I had four jobs so I could get more money to pay for college and that’s where I started and went to college to study space science and eventually¬†girls the advice is very similar but a little different. It is the same thing that I just told you with the fact that sometimes the other person does not have the imagination to understand that you are also capable, that you do not have to behave differently, you do not have to be a girl or a different woman, it has to be you.

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And sometimes the problem is that you do not have models or roles that look like you and that is why the person you are asking is probably very different from you and will give you advice according to that person. As an American man studying at Harvard, I think that’s what you have to be. And you think but I am not a man, I am not an American and I see everything so differently. The advice then is as I said, take care of the bird and understand that yours is more special because there is not yet, and since there is not you have to hold on to the fact that you have the right idea and do it. Not just Latina women. I think that women in general, have the impostor syndrome where we wonder if we are capable of if we are not capable.

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I’m sure that if I had asked you 15 years ago what you want to do in your life, in your career, you would say it to me with sorrow, saying I don’t know if it would be a good idea to share it. I tell you because I do it too, and additionally, you give me the whole list of things you have to do before doing what you want, but then, when are you going to do it? So what’s up? To another person, it may sound as if one does not believe, that perhaps one is not sure, and has nothing to do with it. It has to do with the fact that as women they have always told us that it is not there, that this is not the case, that this is not right, that it is better this way, so look for one as that necessary validation.

And in Latin American women I think that sometimes this is amplified because now it is not only what I said before, but there are expectations that you are the mother, that you have to be at home, there are a few things that sometimes Latin American culture puts women on top. Going back to the Perseverance mission, if you find out that there was life on Mars, what impact could that have on the challenges we face on Earth-like climate change? And what would it mean for you on a personal level?

I think that what we are going to discover with this mission may come as a concern to understand or solve the climate problem and how to take care of planet Earth. If we realize that we are not alone in the universe, forget it, that is like when one realizes that the car was not yours, that it was loaned and one goes and washes it and cleans it. You’re going to have to reevaluate and have that introspective and say oh my God if I’m not the only one then I have to do this better. And my analogy of the car is exactly the planet Earth when you realize that you are not the only one, that the car was not yours, you have to take care of it.

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