When Nagin Cox was 14 years old, she decided she wanted to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). That dream came true 20 years ago.
Q. Why did you want to work for JPL?
A. I was interested in going where no one had gone before. Robots explore places before people do, so it’s a thrill to come to work every day and be part of a team that gets to see pictures of Mars that no one has ever seen before.
Q. What’s your role with Curiosity?
A. Essentially, I work on a team that remotely drives a small SUV on Mars. It’s not like a video game with a joystick. We send her instructions that she downloads and executes. Curiosity wakes up around 10 am Mars time. After she wakes up, she looks at the instructions we’ve sent her and then goes to work. Between 2 and 4 pm Mars time, she uplinks to a Mars orbiter and her data is sent back to us at JPL. While she’s sleeping, we work the Martian nightshift and plan the next day — we’re like her cruise director.
Q. How realistic was the movie The Martian?
A. The movie was great for raising awareness about what we do at JPL. It really made our robotic work shine. There were certainly creative liberties taken — for example, there could not be a sandstorm of the magnitude shown in the movie because of the Martian atmosphere.
Q. Do you have other work at JPL?
A. Right now I’m working on an oxygenator, something else that was featured in The Martian. We’re working on a device the size of a pillow that will suck in the Martian atmosphere, break it up and burp out oxygen. We’re scheduled to send that to Mars in 2020. I also speak domestically and internationally about Mars and space for JPL, NASA and the U.S State Department.
Q. Do you see parallels between your field and the work CLM Members and Fellows do?
A. Definitely. We both have to fight off preconceptions of our work — there can be a negative stereotype of insurance and claims people, which I’ve learned is not true from meeting people through the CLM and my own experience with a claim when a tree limb fell on our house. In my field, we have to fight off the concept that the government should not spend money on the space program. In reality, less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget goes to the space program and the returns are tremendous. One of those benefits is the inspiration the program brings to young people who like me are driven to study math and science with the hopes of one day working for NASA or JPL.