Courtesy of NASA

Perseverance Rover landing on the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021.

March 9, 2021

Big Red Alumni Lead Perseverance Landing

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Aaron Stehura ’09 and Nagin Cox ’86 stretched the bounds of all that they learned on the Hill through the Perseverance Landing — a historical leap that will allow scientists to better understand Mars through its geologic record.

The purpose of the robotic missions to Mars are similar to those that explored the Earth’s moon, according to NASA. The objective of Perseverance is to shape national space policy to prepare for sending humans to Mars by 2030

According to Stehura, the rover will be traveling around Mars for one Martian year —  equivalent to 687 Earth days — to inspect its surroundings, take pictures and collect rock samples. Geologists and astrobiologists on the perseverance team will then analyze these rock samples, which allow researchers to study the environment on the planet’s surface and its ability to support life. 

The past eight years have culminated to “seven minutes of terror” for Stehura and Cox, who have worked on Perseverance since 2013.

“We refer to the landing as the seven minutes of terror because it takes about seven minutes for the spacecraft to get from the top of the atmosphere, down to safety on the ground on Mars,” said Stehura, the entry, descent and landing lead of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In just these seven minutes, the perseverance team saw their hard work come to fruition. 

Having been in the control room for four out of five U.S. rover landings, Cox is a space exploration veteran. Still, she said that during each landing, a palpable sigh erupts over the control room. 

“It is just as nail-biting and epic every time … my heart was in my throat,” Cox said. “When you see us all jumping up and down when things were so joyous and happy. We were very relieved.”

Nagin Cox ’86 poses with several tags from past space explorations.

Cox, chief of engineering operations at NASA, said that the landing is only the beginning of the mission moving forward. Her team’s focus moving forward is on exploration, as they are responsible for assessing the health and safety of the rover during landing and every day on Mars.  

“We are the first of a three-part mission where we collect samples that will be brought back to Earth” Cox explained. “None of that would happen unless we landed successfully.”

Stehura emphasized that his time at Cornell prepared him for his work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA. 

Aaron Stehura ’09

“Working on [CUSat and Violet] project teams gave me firsthand experience of what it’s like to pull a team together to work towards the type of common goals and to solve the types of challenging problems that we have to solve at [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] everyday,” Stehura said. 

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where both Cox and Stehura work, develops the technologies used in the Perseverance, such as the cameras on the rover and its overall design.

Similarly, Cox has dreamed of  working at NASA since she was 14. She credits the documentary series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which featured Carl Sagan discussing discoveries on the universe and its makeup, for leading her toward Cornell. 

“On Sunday night, at the end of every Cosmos show it would say ‘Carl Sagan, Cornell University,’” Cox recalled. “So I decided that I wanted to go to Cornell University.”

Cox attended Cornell with an Air Force ROTC scholarship. After graduating with a B.S. in operations research and industrial engineering and a B.A. in psychology, she spent six years in active duty for the Air Force before joining NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. 

“I’m proud of the fact that I have degrees from two different colleges,” Cox said. “Sometimes I’m not quite sure which of my Cornell degrees I need more, the engineering or the psychology. Because these things are always about a team.”

Since graduating, Cox has remained heavily involved with both the Cornell alumni network and the President’s Council of Cornell Women. She credits Cornell both for kicking off her career and for continuing to contribute to NASA missions with future engineers and scientists. 

“Once a Cornellian, always a Cornellian,” Cox said. “It’s still part of how I define myself.”