Dr. Moogega Cooper—a real-life “Guardian of the Galaxy”—was the planetary protection lead of the famed NASA 2020 Mars mission. Making room for failure, staying curious, and celebrating diversity have all shaped her success as a leader.
It turns out that maintaining a childlike curiosity is a great way to prepare for a mission to Mars. Especially when it’s one with a rover called “Curiosity.” A lot of what happened on NASA’s 2020 Mars mission, which touched down on the red planet February 18, might not have occurred without innate curiosity about what it would look like to enter, descend, and land on Mars—and to imagine what it would take to get a helicopter to fly on another planet.
“It all ties back to letting that inner child run free,” says Dr. Moogega Cooper, lead planetary protection engineer for Mars 2020, and part of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Cooper, a speaker at the 2021 ASAE Annual Meeting, will offer her insights on leadership during her Game Changer speech on August 17.
Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
It’s not always easy—or intuitive—to let an inner child run free. Something could break, malfunction, or just not go as planned, which is probably why a lot of organizations are risk-averse. “You don’t want to fail so much that your company goes under,” Cooper says. But on the JPL team, she has flourished in an atmosphere where ideas are incubated and grown. “There’s an infrastructure that allows for failure,” she says.
In the mission to Mars, the ideas the team brought to the table, as long as they didn’t take away from the mission objectives—looking for signs of past life and preparing for humans—were all part of findings that would do no harm to the primary mission, she says. “If it fails, it fails. Just don’t crash into our rover and affect the ability of what we are going to do,” she says.
So how do you keep that elusive inner child alive? “One big thing that does it is the company culture,” Cooper says. She credits JPL with providing a collegial atmosphere where people are allowed to have creative ideas and it’s OK to ask “dumb questions.” Working in a place that permits ideas to soar nurtures that inner child. Because organizations on the opposite end of the spectrum, she says, can have cultures that “kill that inner childlike curiosity.”
Cooper was not always curious about space—or math, or science. By her own admission, she was “horrible” at those subjects. But in fifth grade, she rented the first video of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. In that series, he broke down the most complicated astrophysics principles in a way a fifth-grader could understand. She had an epiphany and realized, “This is why science is so cool!”
Diversity Is an Advantage
She credits her own diverse background for shaping her appreciation for diversity and inclusion in a broader sense. Her father, born in 1925, is from Georgia and served in World War II. Her mother is from South Korea. For her Ph.D. dissertation defense, instead of bringing in cookies and coffee for the board, she decided to bring food from her own culture: Seoul food and soul food, she says.
In her current setting, having a diverse team with various backgrounds is an advantage because they not only bring what they learned in school, they also bring a unique perspective, based on all the different ways they were raised. “If you bring someone from a different culture and background who solves problems in a completely different way, now you have 10 ways to tackle a problem instead of the same-old, same-old,” she says.
It Pays to Persevere
The Curiosity rover found that not only were there persistent signs of water, but that the environment was also habitable and could have sustained life, if it did exist. Without the freedom of curiosity to set the stage for that, it would not have been possible to take samples and look for ancient signs of life. That curiosity allowed the team to think not only outside the box, but the stratosphere—and beyond. The perseverance and fearlessness paid off.
“This gets us intriguingly closer to possibly answering the big question,” Cooper says, “Are we alone in this universe?”