NASA Engineer Nagin Cox Helps Build Robots That Explore Mars

Nagin Cox always wanted to be an explorer. But she wanted to be the kind of explorer that unites people across the globe around a common cause.

“I learned kind of very young that we find ways to divide ourselves,” she said. “I wanted to do something for the whole world and given that I was growing up in the Apollo days, it was clear that the space program represented something that was for all humankind.”

Cox works for NASA as a mission specialist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, engineering the robotic equipment that explores our galaxy. She’s worked on a number of unmanned space missions, including Spirit, Opportunity, and Galileo. She’s currently the tactical mission lead for the Curiosity rover’s mission on Mars and has an eye to the future working on the Mars 2020 mission.

Her inspiration? Carl Sagan

What made Cox so interested in robotic exploration? Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series, originally broadcast on PBS in 1980.

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NASA mission specialist Nagin Cox. Photo courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“It didn’t take a lot of digging to understand what the astronauts did, but my familiarity with robot missions came from the ‘Cosmos’ show,” she said. “I realized that if you really wanna go some place that no one has been before, that would be a robotic mission.”

In addition to helping design future robotic missions, Cox serves an important role with Curiosity. Curiosity sends data back to Earth about its location, what it did the previous day, and its findings. The downlink team analyzes that information.

“Their first job is to say, ‘O.K., how is the rover? How is the rover’s health and safety? Did it do what it was supposed to do yesterday?’ ” she said.

While the downlink team checks in on Curiosity’s wellbeing, the uplink team starts its work with the rover’s next set of instructions. Cox is the uplink team lead for the mission.

“Assuming that everything is O.K., what do we want to do the next day?” she said. “We drove to this location on Mars successfully, so now, let’s use the robotic arm.

“My job, as the mission lead, is to be aware of what is going on in every room, and be kind of the final say, if something unexpected happens.”

Even NASA engineers take breaks

Cox’s enthusiasm for space and robotics makes you want to volunteer for the next Mars mission. She recalls the moment when Curiosity’s first pictures of Mars began downloading.

I was in the mission control room, and the videos that you might see of us jumping up and down? I was one of the guilty party.”

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A selfie taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover in 2015. Cox is one of the mission leads on the project. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

When designing and piloting a multi-billion-dollar robotic explorer through space and to alien planets, the possibility for unexpected situations is as vast as the galaxy itself. While Cox credits the tremendous amount of experience at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for smoothing the way, she also believes cultivating other hobbies can lead to “Eureka!” moments.

Sometimes the more intense your work, the more important it is that you take a significant break to let your brain do other things,” she said.

Exercise has helped her get to some of her own lightbulb moments, but she notes that some of her colleagues interests are more esoteric.

“We have one of the world’s leading origamists at JPL,” she said. “We have people who are welders and sculptors and build their own things on the side. Just a lot secondary interest that gives their minds the chance to do something very different, so they work on the other problem kind of in the background.”

The problems that Cox and other scientists at the lab solve are complex and fascinating. If you’re the kind of person who wants to help measure radiation in Jupiter’s moons or learn how to grow potatoes on Mars, Cox has some advice for you.

“Really focus on getting an internship,” she said. “I can get straight-A students from MIT or CalTech any time I need them. That doesn’t launch a spacecraft, and doesn’t launch and land a mission. These spacecraft are very complicated, and they are not built, tested or operated in isolation. … So I don’t need somebody who can sit in a cubicle, all by themselves… Just like the human (space) missions you need people who can communicate what they are doing.”

Robots that boldly go where no one has gone

As far as communication goes, Cox’s enthusiasm for robotic space exploration knows no bounds. She loves the robots that are helping us discover the galaxy, and that love is kind of contagious if you get to talking to her.

When I was on Galileo, I would walk outside, look up at Jupiter and talk to my ship,” she said. “You know, ‘Tell me what’s wrong’ and ‘How are you doing? How is the radiation?’ ”

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A closeup of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover’s drill. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

It’s hard not to imagine Cox and her colleagues at JPL as a bridge crew for the Enterprise on “Star Trek” or a group of 17th-century scientists and mathematicians, spying the rings on Saturn for the first time.

“I remember one of the first times that an image came back of Spirit and Opportunity from these Mars reconnaissance orbiter cameras, and, you know, we came unglued because you could see the rover,” she said.

On Aug. 8, you can look to the sky and sing “Happy Birthday” to the Curiosity rover exploring Mars millions of kilometers away. And you won’t be alone—you can bet Cox and her team will be singing, too.

Kelly Prosen Hara

Kelly Prosen Hara is a Minneapolis writer who loves tabletop games, horror, roadside attractions and empowering women. She tweets pictures of her cats and food her husband makes @kellymprosen and blogs about love and mental illness at adventuresinpoorgrammar.blogspot.com.

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