Like a lot of 14-year-olds, Nagin Cox, now the deputy head of engineering for the Mars Curiosity rover, went through what she calls a science fiction phase, watching plenty of Star Trek and Star Wars.
“My friends moved on very rapidly to Nancy Drew,” says Cox. “That was about the same time the television show Cosmos was on. It rapidly occurred to me that we didn’t have to stay in fiction.” Cox realized most space exploration in her lifetime was going to be robotic, “and the only place in the world that was happening was [NASA’s] Jet Propulsion Labs.”
Cox’s father was not willing to pay for her to go to college. But when an Air Force recruiter visiting her high school asked her if she wanted to go to college, she told him she was getting straight A’s, and he said she would most likely be eligible for a military scholarship. After earning degrees from Cornell University and the Air Force Institute of Technology, she landed at Jet Propulsion Labs [JPL] in 1993. “It’s been heaven ever since,” she says.
Literally, perhaps. Curiosity is Cox’s second Mars mission; she also worked on the Galileo mission to Jupiter. Right now, she and the rest of the Curiosity team are living on Martian time, setting their clocks to the Martian day and working 12-hour shifts that might begin or end at 3 a.m. When the shifts are on, she says, it’s incredibly busy. “We have not figured out when to go to the bathroom or when to eat,” she says.
Cox spoke with One Thing New’s Kimberly Weisul about her career in science, the Curiosity rover, and why the future of the planet depends on women.
What exactly do you do? Your bio says you are the deputy chief of the engineering team for the rover.
The rover wakes up each morning and says, “What do I do today?” It looks for the instructions that we loaded overnight. In the afternoon it gets out its cell phone and calls home and tells us how its day went, and goes to sleep. We have the Martian night to develop the next set of commands.
I work the Martian night shift. The Mars day is 39 minutes longer than the Earth day. I need to be at work at 4 pm Mars local time every day. That means we need to come into work 40 minutes later every Earth day. Yesterday I came into work at 10 am and worked until 10 pm.
The offices all have blackout shades. At home the windows are all covered because you don’t want to get distracted by when it’s night and day on Earth.
When we are on shifts, and trying to write the next group of commands, the clock is running. It’s very tight. We have not figured out when to go to the bathroom or when to eat. We will figure it out. It’s new.
Are you enjoying it?
Mars time is a blast, but it is hard on people and it is hard on families.
Mars time only lasts for three months, and there are people who didn’t stay on the mission or asked not to be on Mars time because of the effect it can have on children. We had a couple where one parent was working on Spirit and the other on Opportunity. The kids didn’t see their parents together for three months. Not all babysitters are on Mars time.
When did you know you wanted to be involved in space exploration?
I knew when I was 14. Like many teenagers, I was very melodramatic. I didn’t want to do something for my family or my city or my country. I wanted to do something for all humankind.
But I was in a repressive household. There was not as much value placed on the aspirations of the girls in the family as the boys. For me it was particularly important to have a goal, and space exploration was it. My mother was incredibly supportive.
How did you get your job at JPL?
The first step was to get a good education. Math and science did not come naturally to me, but I knew I needed that language.
I had no money for college. I read about astronauts, and they had military backgrounds. And at the end of [the television show] Cosmos it would say the show was produced by Cornell University. That was the first time I heard of Cornell. So I needed the money to go.
Then one day I was walking through the back parking lot of my high school, and I saw an Air Force recruiting trailer. I knew nothing about the military. But I remembered a lot of astronauts had been in the military. My little 15 year-old self stared up at the trailer and walked up the steps. I walked in the door and they said, “Hello, do you want to go to college?” And I said, “Yes, but I don’t have any money.” When they said, “What’s your GPA?” I said, “4.0,” and they said, “Have a seat.”
This was 1980 when they just started admitting women. They were so desperate for women that they were waiving all sorts of requirements. I got scholarship offers from the Army, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard. The Navy asked me why I didn’t apply, and I said I’m not so crazy about water and you don’t have a space program.
I signed up for the Air Force. By the time my father found out it was too late.
We hear a lot about how there are too few women in the hard sciences. Have you ever found that to be isolating?
From the moment I got to JPL I was like, “Look at all the women!” JPL is 30 percent, maybe 40 percent women. It’s very rare that I’m the only woman in the room.
In the Air Force, I was frequently the only woman. Sure, there were moments when you felt like, “Where are all the women?” but you knew going in the military that was going to be the case.
What is isolating, sometimes, is that I don’t have children. There is a time in your life where the way people connect at work is home improvement and their kids. If you don’t have children, you don’t have that icebreaker.
In general, what sort of people are drawn to the space program?
Jet Propulsion Labs has 5,000 people. It takes all kinds to do something like this.
It is true that the percentage of people who are lacking social skills at JPL is much higher than in the general population. Women at JPL will say there are great guys at JPL who appreciate smart women, but you have to train them.
Everyone tends to have a strong second interest to give them a break from work. We have people with strong creative sides--composers, artists--that allow their engineering minds to take a break.
We are also getting paid government salaries. Most people have sacrificed to do this work. JPL is very well known for the fact that you don’t get paid overtime and you put a lot in. Everybody’s about the mission. It would have been hard to go somewhere else after the Air Force.
What sacrifices did you personally make to be part of the space program?
Right this second there are 10 pounds that I sacrificed. All you can do during Mars time is just maintain. At the end of October everybody will start exercising again. Everybody talks about the 10 pounds you gain in the last two years of the flight project. It’s harder, now that I’m 45, to get rid of those 10 pounds than it was from Spirit and Opportunity.
What's next for Curiosity? Over the next 90 days, what are you most looking forward to, in terms of the mission, and what do you expect to be the most difficult part?
In the next few months we'll be doing some early science, and driving as well as getting the surface sampling system checked out and commissioned. That is brand new, so it's exciting.
If you weren’t involved in the space program, what would you be doing?
For me, the path not taken is the fight for women’s rights. I’m a huge advocate of what Human Rights Watch does. I’m a big supporter of them. But I already have a job.
Why women’s rights in particular?
It’s at the nexus of the future of the planet. Obviously, it’s very close to me because when I was 10, I was confronted with what happens to women when they are undervalued. Others in my family did not choose to stand up to my father. I did.
What advice would you give to a young person who isn’t certain if they want to study science?
There is no better degree to get, even if you don’t know what you want to do, than an engineering degree. Once you have that degree, all doors are open to you. If you decide to pursue anything at the graduate level, medicine, law, literature, you can do all that with an engineering background. It is much harder to go the other direction. Give yourself the flexibility to figure it out when you’re a little older. Once you have the engineering degree, then you have a golden ticket. -- KW
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Photo of Nagin Cox, in foreground, courtesy of NASA Jet Propulsion Labs