From SM East to the surface of Mars: An interview with NASA’s Nagin Cox

Nagin Cox

In the early 1980s, Nagin Cox spent her days in the classrooms of SM East already fantasizing about a career in space exploration.

Today, she’s living her dream, working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where she’s on the command team for the Curiosity rover, a mission whose audacious landing on the surface of Mars in August captivated the nation.

The 1982 SM East graduate will be returning to the area later this month for her 30th high school reunion — and while in the area, she’ll be giving a number of talks, including an event open to the public at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, at Colonial Church in Prairie Village.

We caught up with Cox for an interview via email last week to find out more about her time in PV — and exploring the heavens. You’ve been away from Prairie Village for a while now. What do you remember most about the area?

NC: What I recall most fondly about Prairie Village is how lucky I was to attend high school at Shawnee Mission East. The teachers and the administration expected the students to aim high and they were very supportive of all of our aspirations.  Were there any teachers you had or classes you took during your time in the PV area that you’d credit with helping you discover a passion for engineering and science?

NC: I had wonderful teachers at East, such as Senora Noble, my Spanish teacher, and Mr. Rick Royer, who retired this year. He was a great math teacher. While both were wonderful teachers, my interest in space exploration came from other sources such as the Carl Sagan Cosmos series. When did NASA become a career aspiration for you?

NC: I have wanted to work at NASA/JPL since I was 14 and decided that I wanted to do something for all humankind.  In layman’s terms, is it fair to say part of your job is to drive the Curiosity rover? And who will drive while you’re back in town?

NC: That is not quite accurate. I am not one of the rover drivers, which are the folks who specifically design the driving commands. I am part of the overall command team that builds the commands that the rover will execute the next sol (a sol is a Martian day, which is 39 minutes longer than an Earth day). We are working around the Mars clock (and the Earth clock) so every role has multiple people in it. So other team members will do the uplink command job while I am in Kansas City. What does a typical day at work look like for you?

NC: A typical sol for me is to come in and understand if the commands we sent to the rover yestersol (yesterday) executed properly on Mars. Then we decide along with the scientists what we would like to do the next sol on Mars and then design those activities. The second part of the day is devoted to converting those activities into low level commands that will be transmitted to the rover. We work the “Martian night shift”- i.e. we work when it is night on mars to program the rover for what it will do the next day. It is a very collaborative environment where we all work together in big operations rooms to determine what will happen on Curiosity the next sol (day).