Anita Sengupta is not a household name, but certainly should be as it belongs to the woman whose first-of-its-kind, colossal parachute design performed flawlessly on Sunday, August 5th as Curiosity, NASA’s most ambitious rover, made its dramatic arrival into Mars’ atmosphere and prepared for landing. Without her engineering feat, Curiosity would not be roving right now, looking for signs that there once was life on Mars and gathering information for future manned missions to the Red Planet.
The expert NASA engineer, who was fascinated by science fiction as a young girl, is also a USC Adjunct Astronautical Engineering Professor, a pilot, a motorcycle rider, a youth mentor and a free spirit who lives to break the mold and the limits that society might put on her. What makes all of this even more impressive… she’s only 35. Why this Woman You Should Know is not making front page, headline news is beyond us. We are honored to share our exclusive interview with Dr. Anita Sengupta.
WYSK: You are an expert in Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. What does that mean, in layman’s terms?
AS: I design systems that enable us to land rovers and robots on other planets. What this means is that we need to come up with ways to slow the payload down. When there is an atmosphere present we can use it to slow ourselves down with aerodynamic drag. In some cases if the atmosphere is very thick, like Earth, Titan, or Venus, drag is enough to land softly of the surface. However, on Mars, where the atmosphere is very thin, we also need to use retro rockets to give us a soft landing. So an entry system may include a heat shield, parachute, and retro-rockets, all with the sole purpose of slowing ourselves down from 1,000’s of mph to less than 1 mph in a controlled and safe fashion. When there is no atmosphere we have to use retros the whole way.
WYSK: When you were asked to be the lead systems engineer of the parachute deployment phase of the planned entry, descent and landing of Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, NASA’s first rover mission in eight years, what was your reaction?
AS: I wanted to do the parachute job because is it difficult. I specifically like to take on challenging problems because I like to be pushed beyond my comfort level. I am also an experimentalist and parachutes require a lot of testing to make sure they work, so it fit in perfectly with my technical and research background. There were many unknowns in this parachute development because of the size and deployment conditions, so it was right up my alley.
WYSK: In a nutshell, your job was to design a parachute that could sustain the weight and size of Curiosity, which has been described as a rover of “monster truck” proportions – 1 ton (2,000 pounds), 10 feet long (roughly the size of a regular Jeep) – and the best equipped robot, valued at $2.5 billion, ever sent to explore another planet. Your supersonic parachute needed to slow the massive Curiosity as it hurtled towards Mars’ surface at twice the speed of sound (900 miles per hour at Mach 2). How do you even begin to approach a task of this magnitude?
AS: You approach it methodically. You think about all the different aspects of the parachute descent, all the things that could go wrong, all the different ways to address those problems, and then you design a test program to address all of those aspects. When it comes to textile structures you have to consider both the structural and aerodynamic aspects.
WYSK: What was the stress level like?
AS: I live for the challenge, so it is not stress. It is excitement and satisfaction of accomplishing something of this magnitude.
WYSK: How large of a team did you lead?
AS: Depending on the particular activity we were engaged in, 10 to 25. We had test programs at two different NASA centers and analysis programs at two different universities, and parachute fabrication at our vendor’s location. So this was a nationwide project with interplanetary application!
WYSK: How long did it take you and your team to design and test the parachute?
AS: We started the program in 2006 and completed it in 2010. We had a total of four different types of test programs: full-scale from a helicopter, full-scale in a very large subsonic wind tunnel, sub-scale with a rigid representation of the parachute in a supersonic wind tunnel, and sub-scale with a textile parachute in a supersonic wind tunnel.
WYSK: We understand that the final parachute was 70 feet in diameter, which would make it the largest parachute opening at the highest speed ever on Mars. Once the testing phase was complete, did you have full confidence that it would not only open, but also survive Mars’ harsh atmosphere at go time?
AS: We had a good understanding of the environment, the deployment conditions and were able to design and test a parachute to survive those conditions with margin. The real concern I had was how the parachute would behave in a supersonic low-density environment. To address this concern we designed and conducted supersonic wind tunnel tests to determine the performance in this environment. So we had a good understanding of the problem. But, when the first time you truly test the parachute at full-scale in Mars-like conditions is on Mars, there are always lingering concerns.
WYSK: On Sunday, August 5th, what were you doing/feeling during the “Seven Minutes Of Terror”* (critical time from the moment Curiosity arrived in Mars’ atmosphere and prepared for landing). *Note: Watch the video at the end of the post, which features Anita, to wrap your head around the unbelievable conditions and variables that she and her NASA colleagues were up against.
AS: I was in the EDL mission control area with my colleagues eagerly awaiting the telemetry from the entry system and eventually the rover. We were all watching as the data came in: first cruise stage separation, then atmospheric entry, peak heating, parachute deploy, sky crane, and then the first amazing images of Curiosity on the surface of Mars. It was exhilarating.
WYSK: How does it feel to have contributed in such a critical way to this epic mission that involved NASA’s most ambitious Mars rover?
AS: It was the highlight of my career. It is hard to put into words what it feels like to accomplish something so difficult. It makes you want to do it all over again, tomorrow. Working on something this big, this complicated, it consumes you, but it’s a good feeling.
WYSK: Did you always want to pursue a career in Aerospace? What about it interested you?
AS: I was always interested in space travel and space exploration. It is the unknown, the vastness of the universe, trying to make sense of your place in it, that drives me to do what I do. As I recently quoted on my Twitter feed @Doctor_Astro, “I am everything, I am nothing, I am an orbiting cloud of electrons that has existed since the beginning of time”.
That sums me up in a nutshell.
WYSK: Who were your role models growing up?
AS: I was very much a self starter. The closest thing I had to role models for my career path were the science fiction characters on TV and in books that I read about. In scifi there are no limits to your potential, to what is possible. In scifi there are also many female heroines and lead characters. I have never been one to value my worth based on typical traits, instead based on how I can break the mold and the limits that society might put on me. I grew up thinking that about myself in that context, and never looked back. I am an engineer, a pilot, a motorcycle rider, I am a free spirit who is truly liberated.
I did have a math teacher in junior high school, however, who instilled confidence in my mathematical ability, which I was lacking until he taught me. So thanks to him I started to excel in math and the rest is history.
WYSK: Are there a lot of women in your field or are women in the minority?
AS: There are not enough. I would say about 25%. In particular, EDL does not have enough women; less than 25% in my estimation. This upsets and concerns me. It is important to have diversity in the workplace because that leads to diversity of thought and new and innovative solutions.
WYSK: Does being a woman in a still largely male dominated field pose any challenges or is gender not a focus?
AS: It does pose many challenges. There can be a camaraderie amongst men that can make a female engineer’s career path trajectory slower and more difficult. I face it almost every day in one way or another. Who you know is often as important as what you know. It is critical that women in the field do what they can to mentor and train younger female engineers to ensure that they have the same opportunities. It is also important that institutions of learning and of business enable and encourage woman to seek teaching positions and leadership positions. To that end, I always try to have a female intern to mentor and encourage.
WYSK: With Curiosity successfully behind you, what’s next for you?
AS: We recently proposed a quantum physics experiment on board the international space station and it was selected. So I will probably start working on that in the very near future as the lead engineer. But I am also working on developing a nano satellite suite for a mission to the Ice Moon Europa and testing parachutes for the multi-purpose crew vehicle.
I am also teaching undergraduate spacecraft design at the University of Southern California in the Astronautics Department.
WYSK: If you could design a mission to work on what would it be?
AS: Unfortunately, I can’t boil it down to just one. But, a mission to land on Venus and determine if there is still volcanic activity present; a mission to land on Saturn’s moon Enceladus to explore the source of the ice plumes that we can see from orbit and the source of potentially organic material; or a lander to land on Jupiter’s moon Europa to search for the possibility of life in the surface ocean. The good thing about space exploration is that the sky is not the limit.
WYSK: Tell us about the youth outreach initiatives you are involved with through NASA-JPL’s speakers’ bureau?
AS: I give talks to grade, middle, and high school students. I participate in career fairs and career panels at middle and high schools. I teach kids about Mars exploration, Venus exploration, and propulsion. I also give talks to the general public about NASA, Mars, and Venus. I try to engage the public as much as I can because what we are doing is for the public. I believe that everyone is fascinated by space exploration so it is our responsibility to share what we do and a little piece of ourselves with the public.
WYSK: Where do you see the future of the space program and/or space exploration going?
AS: I see us doing more challenging missions that are enabled by technology development. I see us going deeper into space, and also returning more samples to Earth to investigate. I see us eventually sending people to asteroids and Mars. I see a bright and amazing future that will keep generations of kids and adults fascinated by our human exploration of the unknown.
DID YOU KNOW?
With so much excitement over Curiosity’s August 5th landing, most people don’t realize that NASA actually launched the rover on its 354 million-mile journey to the Red Planet 8.5 months ago, on November 26, 2011. So, in roughly the same amount of time it takes for a woman to conceive and deliver a baby, Curiosity traveled through space to Mars.