NASA's Dr. Moogega Cooper

NASA's Dr. Moogega Cooper with Annika Richardson.

Moogega Cooper, head of NASA's planetary protection team, visited Yakima on Oct. 19 to speak as part of the Town Hall series at the Capitol Theatre.

During her lecture and in a press conference just prior to that event, she talked about her work to ensure that spacecraft are free from contamination. She also specifically discussed NASA's Mars mission that was launched in 2020. Between a global pandemic and a two-week launch window, the mission was no easy task, but the Perseverance rover is now on Mars searching for signs of life.

Cooper’s role with that mission was critical. Her team worked to prevent any spores or organisms from Earth from contaminating the spacecraft and Mars. She had to check the entire spacecraft many times to make sure everything was perfect.

“Almost every single part of that spacecraft on Mars I have touched or my team has touched with a sterile swab," Cooper said.

Now Perseverance is on Mars sending back photos.

“I see photos coming from Mars at the same time as everyone in the public," said Cooper. "I spent a lot of time in my life focused on this mission, so seeing those images come back makes me feel fulfilled and fuels me for the next step.”

Cooper’s accomplishments seem almost impossible for the average person, but she advocates for more people to become involved in science, especially underrepresented groups.

“I came from an underrepresented community," she said, "and I knew that it took someone reaching out, someone that usually wouldn’t come to my neighborhood and talk to me about science and engineering.”

Cooper wasn’t always the scientist she is today. It took a lot of hard work. She said she believes it is important for people to not be discouraged. Everyone fails at some point on their journey.

“Allow yourself to fail," she advised. "It’s not a failure if you turn it into one more step towards what you want to do.”

She also recognizes that some people are interested in math and science, but find them difficult.

“For those who are intimidated or frustrated with it, it may be because someone didn’t break it down in a way you specifically can understand," she added. "See who can resonate with your learning style and preserve.”

Annika Richardson is a senior at La Salle High School.

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