There’s some confusion about the time at which
and I are supposed to connect on Zoom. She’s in Pasadena, Calif., and I’m in New York. I assume there’s been an Eastern vs. Pacific clock-mix-up, but Ms. Verma doesn’t think about time “that way.” Instead, she says, “I usually check whether somebody’s talking about Earth time or Mars time.”
Ms. Verma has good reason to pay heed to the time on Mars, currently 134 million miles away. She’s the chief engineer of robotic operations for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars on Feb. 18. The sight of NASA scientists cheering the successful descent from their control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory lifted American hearts. But there were “many fewer people in the room,” she tells me, than when the last rover, Curiosity, reached the red planet in 2012: “There had to be distancing this time because of the pandemic. So there were people in other rooms, and others observing remotely.”
Ms. Verma and her team are responsible for “everything to do with the mobility of the rover,” which includes driving and navigation as well as operating the robotic arm that gathers rock and core samples on Mars. They also oversee the Ingenuity helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft that weighs 4 pounds and spans 4 feet. “This will,” she tells me, “be the first aircraft to attempt powered, controlled flight on another planet.”
Ms. Verma does some of the driving of Perseverance herself, often remotely from home thanks to Covid. Her 18-month-old twins, Arjun and Anya, are usually home, so they’re often on Mars time, too, “although it’s sometimes hard to manage them.” Fortunately, her husband, a systems engineer at JPL, is on hand to help. Ms. Verma thinks she has it easy. Some colleagues have more-taxing “Earth-time counterparts in their life”—significant others and older children who have a hard time coexisting on cross-planetary clocks.
A Mars day, called a sol, is 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, so the time difference changes every day. “You try to get synchronized with Mars, instead of Earth,” Ms. Verma says. “So we’ll eat breakfast at 10 p.m. if that’s when it’s breakfast time on Mars, and dinner at 5 a.m. if it’s night there.” She tries to avoid “Earth light when it isn’t daytime on Mars, because it helps a lot with your circadian rhythm.” Ms. Verma has been driving Mars rovers since 2008, so she has some advice for rookies: “No matter how dark your curtains are, they aren’t ever dark enough to keep the light out. So it helps to put tinfoil on the windows, to completely block the light.”
Although she’s too humble to say so outright, Ms. Verma—who is in her 40s but declines to state her precise age—is arguably the world’s most experienced Martian robot operator. She joined JPL in 2007, shortly after completing her doctorate in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, and by 2008 was driving Spirit and Opportunity, solar-powered rovers that landed in 2004. “I was still an Indian citizen then,” she says, “but I became an American citizen shortly after.”
Ms. Verma was born near an Indian air force base in Halwara, in the state of Punjab, where her father was a pilot who flew Russian-made MiG jet fighters. Her mother, a “traditional housewife who can’t drive a car,” envisioned nothing more outlandish for young Vandi than a college education and an arranged marriage. (She got the former, but met her American husband at work.) But Ms. Verma says she was lost to tradition at age 7, when a family friend gave her a set of books about space for her birthday. “I devoured those books, and I watched Dr. Spock on TV”—
“Star Trek” character. “I knew what I wanted in life—to be a space scientist.”
After a bachelor’s degree in engineering in India, she came to Carnegie Mellon, and she interned at NASA while earning her doctorate. Once it became clear that she would specialize in robotics, “there really was no other place to go” than JPL, which describes itself on its website as “humanity’s leading center for exploring where humans cannot yet reach.”
Ms. Verma worked on the Curiosity rover before it landed on Mars, and she drove it for five years, in the last of which she also worked on Perseverance, which left Earth on July 30, 2020. “The pandemic started well before we launched,” she says, “and we still had hardware to put together. We still had to take our rover to Cape Canaveral, because we launched from there.”
NASA couldn’t afford to miss the launch window, because the next one wouldn’t come until 2022. “We try to fly at a time when the path that the spacecraft will take from Earth to Mars is the shortest,” she says. “That occurs every two years, because of the orbital mechanics.” The whole team needed to be at the cape, so “our entire operations facility was redone so that we could have the distancing we needed, and the air filtration” to safeguard against the virus. “We just treated it as another hurdle in our way, and worked out how we were going to get around it.”
Perseverance is “the most sophisticated rover we have ever sent to Mars,” its mission the most ambitious. Spirit and Opportunity were looking for water. Curiosity set out to investigate whether Mars could have been habitable. Perseverance will look for biosignatures of past microbial life and signs of other, presumably extinct life-forms.
There’s more: “One of the most important things we’re doing with this rover,” Ms. Verma says, “is collecting samples of Mars’ core.” The rover’s robotic arm will drill the surface and collect samples the size of a piece of chalk. These will be stored, and eventually brought to Earth. “That’ll be the first time we actually bring back samples from Mars,” she says. “The technologies that would be used to study them aren’t even invented, because the samples will come back in the early 2030s. That’s what’s amazing about this mission.”
So Perseverance is the first leg of a round trip to Mars. In 2026, NASA and the European Space Agency plan to launch a “fetch rover,” which will retrieve the samples and convey them to a launch vehicle. It will take off from Mars and deliver the samples to an orbiter put into space by the Europeans. The orbiter will then relay the material to Earth, in the Utah desert. Ms. Verma is keen to be a part of that next stage, even as she acknowledges Perseverance’s mission is intensifying: “The real work is only just beginning. There are so many scientific discoveries that these rovers make every day.”
What are the prospects of a manned mission to Mars? “It’s going to happen,” Ms. Verma says. “There are going to be humans on Mars.” The question is “whether there’s the desire, and how much effort and resources we put into it.” The technology to “make something happen does come about if there is the will, and you use scientific enterprise to find the solution.”
America, she believes, is better placed than other nations to achieve ambitious goals in space. “It’s a country of explorers,” she says, “and of people who just have this urge to push the boundaries. We’re not comfortable staying still.” She also believes that NASA’s strength—and America’s—lies in absorbing the best from everywhere in the world.
She reels off a list of colleagues’ countries of origin: “Greece, Russia, India, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Mexico”—she pauses, then continues—“Argentina, France, Italy, the U.K., Colombia. It’s almost every place I can think of.” Even Perseverance is a bit of a mutt. MEDA, the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer—which provides meteorological information, including data on airborne dust—is from Spain. Rimfax, the radar imager for the Martian subsurface, was designed in Norway. Moxie, an instrument that will generate oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide for future manned missions, is from a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. SuperCam, the remote microimager that studies the chemistry of rocks and sediment, is French.
What is truly American in all of this is the ambition of NASA and the collective ingenuity of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And Ms. Verma herself—a naturalized citizen born nearly 8,000 miles away who has spent the past 13 years in California in pursuit of a Martian dream.
Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.