Joy of helping guide Curiosity rover 250 million miles away hits close to home for 2 SM East graduates

Photo credit: Shutterstock.
Photo credit: Shutterstock.

The approximately 175 members of NASA’s Curiosity Rover team are responsible for bringing humanity images of a planet 249 million miles away from Earth. Two of the members of that team happen to have grown up about a mile and a half from one another here in Prairie Village.

Tactical Mission Lead Nagin Cox graduated from Shawnee Mission East in 1982 before earning degrees in engineering and psychology from Cornell University and pursuing her childhood dream of working for NASA. After a six-year stint in the Air Force, she landed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and was one of the early members of the Curiosity team.

At a meeting a few weeks ago, she overheard a colleague mention that she was traveling to Kansas City for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

“I said, ‘Hey! I’m from Kansas City,’” Cox recalled. Cooper Gilbert, who had just joined the Curiosity project six months ago, happened to overhear that interaction. He chimed in that he was from Kansas City as well.

“It kind of went from there,” Cox said. “We realized we were both from Prairie Village, and both went to East.”

Gilbert graduated from SM East in 2004 and studied history and political science at the University of Kansas before going on to graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, where he studied atmospheric science, and the University of Maryland, where he studied mechanical and nuclear engineering. While at Maryland, he’d worked on high altitude balloon project that set him up for his position at JPL, where he is one of the Mars Science Laboratory’s tactical downlink leads.

Connecting with Gilbert was not the first time Cox has had that “small world” feeling while working on the Curiosity project. Cox was at Mission Control watching a video feed from Cape Canaveral a few years ago when Clara Ma, the Kansas girl who had won the contest to name the rover as a sixth grader, appeared on screen. The video feed noted that she was now a student at SM East. Cox couldn’t believe it.

Ma, who graduated from SM East in 2015, would later work as a high school intern at the JPL before heading to Yale University, where she’s now a sophomore. Cox and Ma still keep in touch on social media. Cox said she loves getting to share the experience of working on big, interstellar projects with people from her hometown. And she’s never lost the wonder of getting to work on missions that help humanity get a better sense of its place in the universe.

“No matter what building I’m working in, I still make a point to drive through the front gates every day so I can see those big NASA and JPL signs to remind myself how lucky we are to work on these missions,” she said.

Gilbert agreed.

“It has been amazing to get to do this,” he said. “When you find out the instructions you’ve sent to an ATV a quarter of a billion miles away on another planet have gotten there, it’s just incredible.”

Cooper Gilbert (left) and Nagin Cox at the JPL in Pasadena, Calif.
Cooper Gilbert (left) and Nagin Cox at the JPL in Pasadena, Calif.