The Moon, Mars and Beyond

Ann Devereaux, a flight system engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, talks about the missions to the Moon and Mars, and avenues for U.S.-India collaborations.

Ann Devereaux is a flight system engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the lead flight system engineer for the Mars 2020 Rover. Previously, she worked on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover project, ultimately becoming lead system engineer for the flight system and fault protection, and deputy lead for the Entry, Descent and Landing team.

Devereaux visited Kolkata, Ahmedabad, New Delhi and Bengaluru in late 2019, where she interacted with diverse audiences.

Excerpts from an interview with Devereaux.


Humans landed on the Moon 50 years ago. We have made so much technological progress since then. How soon do you think we can put people on the Moon?

I think the trick going forward will be to not just have someone touch the surface of the Moon and then leave, but having a permanent presence around the Moon and on the Moon. So, I do not think it is necessarily a technological problem. But, if you are going to put people on the Moon or Mars, you have to take a lot of big stuff with you. And right now, nobody is going to launch a two-bed-room apartment. You have to figure out how to break it out in bits and how those bits fit together to do the thing they need to do. So, I think, it is going to look like a space station for us on the Moon.


Why are we seeing a renewed interest in missions to the Moon and Mars? What are some of the challenges?

Realistically, the Moon is like our backyard. It is really close. I think, for us, the appeal of the Moon is to try out a lot of what it takes to do real space exploration in the backyard. Especially now that we are finding that the Moon has well-distributed water. There appears to be oxygen available in the soil. Although we cannot breathe it; we have to process it.

Mars has always been interesting from a scientific point of view, because it looks like early Earth. And that is really appealing because right now on Earth, most of the early Earth has been destroyed. 

I think we will not send people to Mars until we have sent them to the Moon. I think a lot of the interest in the Moon and Mars stems from the inspiration to people that there is something bigger than us.


What kind of opportunities for U.S.-India collaboration exist in this field?

The first collaboration between ISRO and NASA was Chandrayaan-1. We had a couple of NASA instruments on it and we supported that with Deep Space Network for communication, tracking and navigation. Chandrayaan-1 was very successful. We confirmed the presence of water and ice on the Moon with Chandrayaan-1, using ISRO and NASA data.

For Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan-2, we were just providing communication, tracking and consultancy support. Before the launch of Chandrayaan-2, a bunch of NASA engineers consulted with their ISRO counterparts on Vikram lander and how it will work.

An upcoming mission, which is a big collaboration between NASA and ISRO, is NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar). ISRO is doing the rocket and the spacecraft and one or two radars, and NASA JPL is building the other radar and some of the support antennas. ISRO will do the radar at Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, and then they will shift it to JPL. We, at JPL, will integrate it with our radar and ship it back to Bengaluru, where they will integrate it with the spacecraft and put the spacecraft into the rocket and the rocket goes up.


Could you tell us about your role as the manager for spacecraft system engineering at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory?

I have a background in radios and computers. But I really liked the idea of the big picture—how all the different pieces come together to make a spacecraft- mechanical pieces; electrical pieces, the software, etc. So, I moved into spacecraft system engineering, where you have the people who are experts in mechanical structure designing, computers, etc., but you also need people who have, kind of, the vision; who can say, “OK, give me this and we connect this to this and this needs to work this way.” I liked that big picture vision and I have done that now for the last 10 years.

I spend a lot of time thinking how we could do system engineering better, how we could be more effective about bringing components together and how we could be smarter about the kind of missions we want to do.


What are the special features of the Mars 2020 Rover?

We landed Curiosity and, I think, even NASA was a little bit surprised by the outpour of interest. So, basically a few months after Curiosity landed, it was like, “Let’s do that again.” We had plans on the drawing board for a while, for doing different things. We thought we would just build the same thing and put different instruments on it.

One of the new features of the Mars 2020 Rover is to collect samples of Martian rocks and soils, and to put those samples aside in test tubes. So, humans, for the first time, will be able to actually touch samples from Martian terrain.

Now, of course, we have meteorites on Earth that people know have come from Mars. The problem with meteorites is that we do not know where exactly they came from. There is no context for it. And meteorites, by definition, are very, very altered from whatever they started.

So, the whole point of Mars 2020 Rover is not only to pick samples, but with all other scientific instruments, it will also give you context like, “I can see a geographical feature that looked like a volcano or that looked like a river bed” and “Here are the other minerals that I found in the area.” So, when I give a sample to a scientist, then that is some information to help better understand the sample.


You interacted with many students during your India visit. What kind of enthusiasm did you see in them for space exploration?

I have been so impressed about how well informed students here are. A young woman asked me about the type of rocket used for Curiosity and why we used that type of rocket. This young woman had a notebook and had written down all the instruments that Curiosity had. We had a long discussion about black holes. At IIT Delhi, a student asked me about thermoelectric generation on rockets and he had this very clever idea!


Can a student who is not very good at mathematics aspire for a career in space research?

Mars 2020 Rover mission has something of the order of 600 people working on it right now. They are not all engineers. They are certainly not all aerospace engineers. There are people like me who learned their math, but are glad that they do not have to do it on a day-to-day basis.