Mars, a Robotic Arm, and the Most Important Question of Our Time

Diana Trujillo, a NASA flight director, discusses the future of space travel and the search for signs of life on the red planet.,

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Mars, a Robotic Arm, and the Most Important Question of Our Time

Diana Trujillo, a NASA flight director, discusses the future of space travel and the search for signs of life on the red planet.

Thursday, April 8th, 2021

archived recording

(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” Well, actually, at this very moment, you’re listening to the first audio recording of Mars. We have that thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is stationed on Mars, along with the helicopter called Ingenuity. In just a few days, the helicopter might become the first aircraft to take flight in the atmosphere of another planet. But the primary objective of the mission is much bigger than just capturing strange sounds or breaking intergalactic flight records. The ultimate goal is to answer the question, has there ever been life on the red planet? On the show today, I’m talking to one of the people who is bringing us closer to that answer: Diana Trujillo. She’s an aerospace engineer at NASA and a flight director of the Perseverance rover in charge of its robotic arm. And in February, when the Rover landed on Mars, Trujillo hosted NASA’s first ever Spanish-language broadcast of a planetary landing.

archived recording (diana trujillo)

— estamos de recibir. Hemos llegado! Perseverance llego. Hemos llegado con cuidado —

archived recording

Touchdown confirmed. Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars.

kara swisher

Welcome to “Sway,” Diana.

diana trujillo

Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

kara swisher

I should say Lady Diana. That’s your actual name, correct?

diana trujillo

That’s correct. Actually, it’s Lady Diana.

kara swisher

You have to explain the story. I think it’s wonderful.

diana trujillo

Well, the reason why my name is Lady Diana is because my grandmother, actually, and my mother had picked it. I was born around the time that Lady Diana actually got married. And my grandmother and my mom always expected for me something wonderful to happen. So I think that they named me after her, hoping that things will go better for me. And I feel like it was that girl thing where you’re like, oh, hopefully, she’s going to find the man of her dreams, which turned out to be different because I’m less of a Lady Diana and more of a Princess Warrior-type thing. I mean, I love my husband, but my entire — my mom, my grandma, my great-grandma’s life was all around serving the other person, particularly your partner. And it’s almost like, stay on the sidelines. And so, I felt like if that was what was in store for me, baby, that was not what I wanted. I wanted to do more.

kara swisher

So I want to talk about your personal story of how you got to NASA and why you wanted to become an aerospace engineer.

diana trujillo

O.K., so the way that I got to NASA, it’s an interesting story because I wasn’t supposed to be working at NASA. I came from Colombia when I was 17. I came to the U.S. I didn’t have, really, any money to survive. And I didn’t know any English.

kara swisher

Why did you come?

diana trujillo

There were several things. One of them is, at some point, my family was having an internal family reunion on the opposite direction. So they were divorcing. And at the same time, I am trying to figure out what am I going to do with my life. And my dad actually had an idea of you should try to learn another language if you want to go somewhere else. So I came to the U.S. And then very quickly, I just found myself trying to study English for two years, which I could not handle anymore at some point. I started to go to the math department, just hoping to see if anybody needs any help because I want to do something else that is not English. And I took a class when I was about to finish my English classes. That was astronomy. And this is in Miami Dade Community College. In that class, I remember the teacher very vividly saying, I have a friend who’s an astronaut. And I thought, I can’t believe that there’s somebody that I know that’s standing in front of me that knows an astronaut. And from then on, I decided, let me read about it. What do people actually do, and what their careers are, and then aerospace engineering was the thing. From the practical standpoint, that’s kind of how I found aerospace engineering. But from the personal standpoint, at some point, it was a crossroad in my mind, where — with my family, it was hard from the perspective of what was the expectation for a woman and what women should be doing. And so, it was more of a, I got to pick something that’s hard, something that speaks for itself and I don’t have to explain, “You do realize that women are smart, right?”

kara swisher

So did you have interest in space when you were growing up?

diana trujillo

For me, space had a very romantic idea. Space was the thing that I will go and lay down on the grass and look at the sky and be like, everything is chaotic around me right now, but space is awesome. The sky is awesome. The stars are awesome. No stars are crashing with each other. And I like to say, is like, nothing is happening on the night sky. But everything is happening. The planets are out there. The stars are out there. And everything just is this amazing harmony.

kara swisher

Mm-hmm. So you went to NASA Academy. I had never heard of it. Explain what NASA — how did you get into NASA Academy? What is it? It feels like a movie.

diana trujillo

I know.

kara swisher

Like space students or something. Talk about your experience there and how you got there.

diana trujillo

So the NASA Academy is and, at that time, was also a program where a lot of students apply. And they only pick 20 students that go to Goddard Space Center. And when I was about to graduate from University of Florida, one of my professors sent me this link, say, “Hey, apply here.” And so, I apply and I remember I opened the application. And the application was petrifying. It was so many questions. And every question was, “In no less than 300 words…” Which I was like, O.K., I’m used to going in the other direction, which is, “Don’t tell me too much.” And so for me, English as a second language, when the answer is no less than 300 words, I’m like, O.K., this is not happening. So I filled it out, and then I did not send it. And so I showed my computer to my friend. And he’s like, click. It’s like, what did you just do? He’s like, “Oh, no, I just sent your application.” And I’m like, “No!”

kara swisher

Oh, he submitted for you. Wow. Why did you think you didn’t belong? Why did you think you shouldn’t push that application?

diana trujillo

That’s a good question. I think that I felt like I didn’t belong because you normally have a conversation with somebody about like, “Hey, so what school do you come from?” It’s like, “I’m at M.I.T.” “I’m at Harvard.” “I’m at Purdue.” And they’re like, “What about you?” It’s like, oh, I went to community college to do English, and I’m doing aerospace engineer at University of Florida, which is a good school, but it was crazy going in from the perspective that it’s like — this is your biggest shot of your life. Like, the girl that didn’t know any English now is in an internship at NASA with the most brilliant college students.

kara swisher

So through that, you got a job at NASA.

diana trujillo

Yeah, through that, I got a job at the educational office at Goddard Space Flight Center. And then from there, I had the possibility of actually working for a company that at that instant was called Orbital Sciences Corporation. And then from there, I jumped at JPL, so Jet Propulsion Laboratory here in Pasadena.

kara swisher

Explain what the Jet Propulsion Laboratory does.

diana trujillo

Yeah, so NASA JPL is one of the many NASA centers that we have on the states. And really, JPL is known for a lot of things. But one of the things they are known for the most is our interplanetary exploration missions.

kara swisher

Now Perseverance isn’t your first mission to Mars, right? You worked on Curiosity.

diana trujillo

I did. I worked on Curiosity. As soon as I started to work at JPL, I worked for, soon, the Constellation Program, which was to take humans to the moon and Mars. And then I switched to Curiosity.

kara swisher

And why is that?

diana trujillo

So when I was at the NASA Academy, I remember reading about this mission called MSL — Mars Science Laboratory. And they also had this laser-beam eye instrument called ChemCam. And so I remember my group project in NASA Academy, I picked the ChemCam as the — this is the instrument we should take. And so now, fast-forward, I’m working at NASA JPL. And I’m like, wait, on the other side of where I’m sitting on my cubicle is the people that work on the thing that I — in college — was dying to know more about. So the way that I end up working is I remember I went to the Entry, Descent, and Landing Lead at that point, who was the supervisor literally behind my cubicle. And I’m like, “Listen, I know you don’t know me. But give me a job. I’ll do anything, anything you want. I’ll take the trash can out every day if you want.”

kara swisher

Why did that interest you? The idea of putting these machines essentially on Mars to do things?

diana trujillo

This mission, not only it sounds like a comic book, right? Like laser-beam eye, nuclear-power robot. Who does not want to work on that? And so I think that, to me, was more of a, why would you not want to be part of this? Why would you not want to be part of the thing that’s going to start answering the pieces, the building blocks, of, are we alone?

kara swisher

So why is the answer on Mars?

diana trujillo

We know that there was water on Mars. We know it has a very thin atmosphere. We know from Curiosity that actually had the chemical composition to sustain life. So all the answers are like, check, check, check. Now, we got to ask, was there life?

kara swisher

So tell me about how you prepared for Perseverance trip to Mars. And what exactly did you need to do to get that answer?

diana trujillo

So when I joined Perseverance, I was a deputy phase lead for the S.C.S. system, which is the Sample and Caching System. What that meant was I was the responsible system engineer for the robotic arm — the two instruments that go on the turret of the arm. So a way to picture is literally like your arm — shoulder, elbow, wrist. And then, in your hand, two instruments. So two fingers of your hand — just put it that way — PIXL, SHERLOC. SHERLOC is one finger. And then, PIXL is the other finger. And so my job — which I loved, like, I have not had so much fun in a job like that — was to get the robotic arm and those two instruments through the clean room into the rocket. So the clean room is where we assembled the rover. And we keep it — just like the name — clean right before we send it to the Cape. The robotic arm shows up into the clean room. The team that works in the clean room mechanically mounts the arm, and then electrically also connects it. And then, now, it’s like, all right, you guys — which is now the robotic arm science team — make sure that one, we know we mechanically did it right and electrically too. But your job is to make sure that you can actually command it and show that that is performing properly after we made that ginormous move.

kara swisher

So what are you looking for exactly for this arm to do?

diana trujillo

The way that this actually works is that you got the robotic arm with the two instruments. The job of those two instruments is to do a scan of the surface to actually understand the signature of what they’re looking at, and then get a better understanding of what’s the composition of the areas that they’re looking. With that information, the scientists will then go ahead and say, O.K., here’s where it’s looking more like we can find what we’re after. Once the scientists identify that zone, then the robotic arm on the actual hand — which is a turret — has a drill. The drill itself is the one that picks up the sample, puts it on the tube. We process those tubes. And that’s when we cache it.

kara swisher

So you are the one that goes and gets what the scientists need. And the samples can lead us to the answers you were talking about, of life on Mars or what had happened to life on Mars. So what was the feeling among you and your colleagues leading up to this going off?

diana trujillo

My team’s job is like full-on adrenaline. I feel like if I was a NASCAR driver, it would be like, I’m NASCAR-driving for two years straight. Like, I’m not getting out of the car. [LAUGHTER] And so when we — we were here. We did all the testing. Everything was packed. And the Rover goes to the Cape. This is in March. The pandemic has escalated. Everybody — we’re going into lockdown. People go to home. And I’m thinking, like, what do you mean? My team is on the airplane. So I’m recalling all my team. And on that Thursday, and Friday, Saturday, we are like, how are we going to do this? First time ever doing the remote activities with the robotic arm in the middle of the pandemic. Everybody’s on the phone call. We can’t see — but we did it. We did the final check-up. We were able to electrically integrate PIXL and then do the actual motions that we needed to do.

kara swisher

Wow. I can’t believe it went off. Did you ever worry that it might not work?

diana trujillo

You know, no. That never crosses my mind. But my biggest relief was on Saturday, March 21, 2020. I’m on the phone call with my Robotic Arm System Engineer, Doug Klein. He’s there. And he’s like, O.K., launch lock completed. Arm launch lock done. And we’re ready. Anything else can go wrong. But we’re done. We can just throw the mic and leave. And we just did the first unstow of the arm on the surface of Mars, almost —

kara swisher

A year later.

diana trujillo

Almost a year.

kara swisher

Yeah, it landed on February 18, 2021. So now that you successfully landed, and your arm is deployed — which is no big deal. I mean, it was probably harder to put this podcast together — you’re on Mars-time. Explain what Mars-time is. I can hardly understand the difference between — you’re in Los Angeles right now, but you’re actually live on Mars-time. What is that?

diana trujillo

Yeah. So what that means is that we try to time exactly the instances where the spacecraft looks a specific downlink times on Mars. So the long-story short here is it’s all based on when the data hits the ground — which is the instance where our day starts, where we say, O.K., talk to us. We hear you. We can now do all the analysis. And that’s when the day starts. So because we don’t have 24 hours on Mars — we have 24 hours and a little bit more- – we started tracking that decisional path as the day moves. And the decisional path also moves with the orbiter. So we’re just shifting our schedule. For example, last week, we started the schedule at midnight. So we were working from midnight until 10:00 A.M. And then, we do that until — like this week, we’re about to do it starting at 3:00 A.M. instead of at midnight. And so we started walking throughout the clock.

kara swisher

Talk me through what you’re doing every day.

diana trujillo

I have the blessing and the pleasure to be one of the flight directors for surface. And so what that means is when we’re doing downlink, I am the tactic responsible lead to make sure that all the folks that are doing the analysis of every single part of the spacecraft — one, that we’re looking at the right angles of that data. That anything that looks strange we’re digging in. That we’re making sure that everything that we analyze is telling us that the rover is O.K. or is not. If the rover weren’t O.K., and we happen to have an anomaly, then it will be my team in concordance now with project management and the anomaly response team to work out the problem and figure out how we’re going to recover the spacecraft. But we’ve been doing so well. We’re not there.

kara swisher

So right now, it’s in the — is it the Jezero Crater?

diana trujillo

Yeah. So right now, we landed on the Jezero Crater. It’s a delta. So if you look at the pictures — and it looks like a fan. And it’s really cool. Because if you were to put water on it, you could just picture like, oh, here goes the river, and then fans out. And on the fanning out, you can see all the little canals that are created as it’s actually fanning out. And so it forces you to imagine what it could have been.

kara swisher

So what have you found so far? It’s been moving yet? Or is it still where it landed?

diana trujillo

We’re on the move. We are driving — so I believe our last drive was approximately 26 meters. One of the many amazing things that this mission has is a helicopter. For the first time, we’re going to fly on another planet. And so we’re on the move right now to try to figure out — take pictures. And in the meantime, while you’re driving, can you also go ahead and check the drill? Check all the systems that we need to cache the sample. And then, also, do some extra science with the instruments that you have already checked out.

kara swisher

And then, have you picked up any samples? When does that start?

diana trujillo

We will be able to talk about that more — maybe in a few months is when we will get down to maybe even attempt to do something like that for sample. But the thing about the sample is that we first need to pick the perfect place. And that will be the scientist to tell us where to go. Right now, we’re doing checkouts.

kara swisher

Right. And then, when you get those samples, when you drill and you pull them up, can they be studied right there?

diana trujillo

Yeah. So once we actually collect the sample, and we put it in a caching tube, the next mission is the one that actually comes and gets it. We don’t come back. We’re just doing the science on-site. And so the next mission, which is a Mars Sample Return, once it lands, it has a fetch rover that goes down and look for the tubes that Perseverance cached, picks them up. And on the platform of the rocket on the same thing that it landed, takes off and brings them back to Earth. So the estimation is probably 2031 is when they think that the sample will be coming back. But right now, we’re just focused on the new baby of the family which is Perseverance.

kara swisher

So let’s say everything goes according to plan. And we can definitely say that there’s life. They bring back the samples. That’s a huge deal. But then what? I mean, how does that change my life or anyone’s life here on the planet to know if there was life on Mars? What do we do with that knowledge?

diana trujillo

What you’re getting at, in my opinion, is, why do we explore? And I think that we explore for many, many different reasons. There’s people like me who feel the drive and the personal need to understand how things work. That’s one aspect. The other aspect is understanding and exploring other planets, particularly Mars, can help us understand what happened to Mars. So we can take care of our own planet in a much better way. And then, understanding you were alone in the universe I think is the most basic fundamental question of our entire existence. Why would we not want to answer something like that? We can develop technology, help humanity, understand our place in the universe, all of that by doing space exploration and more.

kara swisher

So without proof yet, you do not think we are alone, correct?

diana trujillo

No. I don’t think we’re alone. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with the Head of Space Force, General John Raymond. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Diana Trujillo after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Space exploration has always been a race between countries. It’s always seen as that. Do you see that escalating or decreasing in the future, the idea that it’s a space race?

diana trujillo

It’s interesting that you say space exploration always looks like a race. I’ve never seen it like a race.

kara swisher

Right. But it had. There was a whole space race, like, we’re going to get to the moon first. We’re going to get to this first. Is that over, that idea that it’s a race?

diana trujillo

I see it as it’s over. It’s true that it started with the race. But that’s something that predates me. So the space exploration that I have been doing and the team that I work with, we don’t have the conversation of, who’s going to get there first? No. That’s not for us. I think that the way that we explore is we’re exploring to understand more and to understand the universe and our place. So I see it more as the idea of, we’re there to observe and learn and respect. And not go there and then dominate.

kara swisher

You know, I just interviewed Space Force General John Raymond recently. And he told me that part of their mission is protect American assets from foreign threats in space. He said, “Space underpins our national defense. It underpins our intelligence capabilities. It underpins scientific exploration.” And added, “There is a significant threat from adversaries.” Are the threats from so-called adversaries something you and NASA consider for your missions or not at all?

diana trujillo

No. I understand that concept. But I am lucky to not have to worry about those things and instead learn.

kara swisher

Right. So NASA, of course, is a federal agency which has been funded by the government and the American people. But you partner with private companies like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX among others. Can you explain how those partnerships work?

diana trujillo

Yeah. So really the way that I see it is, space exploration — it’s already a very hard job. And if we’re trying to push for diversity in ideas — not only within the team, by having diverse teams to look at the same problem from different angles — the same needs to happen with the industry. We are different people, different industries in this specific case, where different companies are good at different areas. The way that we can really push this — if we really want to get humans to Mars and beyond — we got to call everybody up. And then say, bring the best of you, bring the best that you can do, and just join the party. Because one single entity is not going to get it done. One single company is not going to get it done.

kara swisher

And there’s also the financial consideration, because they’re bringing up people for a lot of money and giving you the money. One of the aims of these partnerships is to save agency money and still have resources, correct? They are doing different things that might cost enormous amounts of money.

diana trujillo

Yeah. We do different missions. And so I think that — yeah, the question that you’re asking me is, how does the distribution actually occurs? That will be a question for somebody else. But I can tell you that from my perspective is, if those companies can get the job done, why will we not partner with them?

kara swisher

Yeah. I just wrote a column saying, I do appreciate that they’re doing this. But the idea of two billionaires essentially having so much influence on the industry and on a public agency — I always think it’s the government’s mission to do big ideas like space exploration.

diana trujillo

Yeah. I think — yes, there’s two billionaires trying to actually do this that like rockets. And? Are we going to do more? Are we going to go to space more? Are we going to increase that? Can you then eventually tell me, “Hey, I’m going to take the 5 o’clock shuttle to Mars?” Why would you not want to do that? To me, it doesn’t really matter if there are two billionaires, if there’s five billionaires, if they’re zero billionaires. The question to me is not that. The question to me is how can we actually push this more and not get entangled into the other stuff that do not allow us to continue to progress.

kara swisher

Are you worried about — my worry is that two people have influence that all the people of the Earth should have. We all should make these decisions together, not because we happen to be wealthier than other people. That’s all. Just this idea that this is a thing greater than individuals. It’s about a civilization making a decision together. And I’d rather have you in charge than others. That’s all I have to say. [LAUGHTER] If you get my drift.

diana trujillo

No, no. I totally hear you. But I also know that we can’t do it alone.

kara swisher

Right. So SpaceX just announced the first all-civilian mission, which is slated for late 2021. How do you feel about the idea of civilians in space?

diana trujillo

I think that’s great.

kara swisher

Why is that? Tell me why you think that’s important.

diana trujillo

You know what? I love your question because of how you finished the last one. Which is — you talked about, we should be making these decisions collectively and not just specific people that have the privilege to bring the seat to the table. But how can we make the decisions collectively if we cannot take civilians? We’re also not making it collectively. So I think that opening it up and bringing civilians to space is almost like saying, come and be part of the decision-making by experiencing this yourself and knowing how it is.

kara swisher

So right now, it’s very expensive. The reported seat on the SpaceX Crew Dragon with an eight-night stay on the International Space Station is a whopping $55 million. When is it can become actually affordable versus a lot of rich people wandering around space essentially?

diana trujillo

So I don’t know about the timeline. The only thing that I can tell you is — my husband works for Virgin Orbit. He’s the V.P. of special projects. And we have this conversation of when is it going to be. And so I think that what gives me encouragement is the possibility was not on the radar. And now, it’s on the radar. And we’re continuing to work to make it less and less expensive once there is more market.

kara swisher

Are you worried about the effect of space tourism when it comes to issues like space debris and fighting or anything else humans can manage to do up there? You said you were lying on the ground looking up there, and it’s so simple there and so complex here on Earth.

diana trujillo

Yes. Am I concerned about humans doing that? Do we have the track record of taking care of Earth? Not really. But do I think that we deep in our hearts don’t care about what’s happening? Not really. So I think that it’s a balance. I can’t answer that question because I think that all of that is hanging on the answer of the question that Perseverance is trying to answer, which is, are we alone? I think that right now, there’s many, many reasons why we need more resources. And different people see resources differently, and achieve them differently, or get them without asking. But there is also the other aspect of it, which is — I believe that there will be a turning point when we find out that we’re not alone in the universe. And at that point, we can start seeing things more peacefully instead of, more, it’s there for the taking.

kara swisher

So do you think we should live on Mars or think about a multi-planetary experience?

Or another planet that would be amenable to us? Or like Jeff Bezos’s thing in the sky that floats around? His spaceship in the sky with trees?

diana trujillo

I think there’s two questions there. Should we do it? And I would say, if we can, more to you. If you want to do that, that’s great. It’s not for me to say what you should do. But should we move on and go for a multi-planetary species? Because we can’t live on Earth because Earth is all damaged or whatever. I don’t believe that. We don’t just destroy and keep moving. We take care of it. And so I think that the reason why we should move on to Mars is just more for the exploration aspect and not because we’re done with Earth.

kara swisher

Will you be going to Mars one day? Do you want to travel in the cosmos?

diana trujillo

I would like to. Yes.

kara swisher

Would you like to live there?

diana trujillo

No.

kara swisher

No. You want to come back?

diana trujillo

I want to come back.

kara swisher

So how are you going to get there? You’ve sent an arm. You’ve sent fingers. You’ve sent mechanical everything. How are you going to — this blob of cells going to get there? I don’t mean to call you a blob. But we all are blobs of cells.

diana trujillo

No, yeah. My personal plan right now is I actually want to go the NASA route. And you know my relationship with applications. So you know why I haven’t applied yet — [LAUGHTER]

kara swisher

Yes, yes, yes, yes. I’ll push the button. Submit. Oh, sorry. Bye. See you later.

diana trujillo

Yes.

kara swisher

OK, good. All right. Thank you, Diana. Thank you so much. I’m going to let you go because I know you have a thing. But I appreciate it.

diana trujillo

Thank you so much for having me.

kara swisher

Bye.

diana trujillo

Bye. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, Daphne Chen, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Erick Gomez, and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair and Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts. So follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you, download any podcast app, then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday with plenty of episodes to keep you entertained on the 5 o’clock shuttle to Mars.

Mars, a Robotic Arm, and the Most Important Question of Our Time

Diana Trujillo, a NASA flight director, discusses the future of space travel and the search for signs of life on the red planet.

transcript

bars
0:00/29:58
-0:00

transcript

Mars, a Robotic Arm, and the Most Important Question of Our Time

Diana Trujillo, a NASA flight director, discusses the future of space travel and the search for signs of life on the red planet.

Thursday, April 8th, 2021

archived recording

(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” Well, actually, at this very moment, you’re listening to the first audio recording of Mars. We have that thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is stationed on Mars, along with the helicopter called Ingenuity. In just a few days, the helicopter might become the first aircraft to take flight in the atmosphere of another planet. But the primary objective of the mission is much bigger than just capturing strange sounds or breaking intergalactic flight records. The ultimate goal is to answer the question, has there ever been life on the red planet? On the show today, I’m talking to one of the people who is bringing us closer to that answer: Diana Trujillo. She’s an aerospace engineer at NASA and a flight director of the Perseverance rover in charge of its robotic arm. And in February, when the Rover landed on Mars, Trujillo hosted NASA’s first ever Spanish-language broadcast of a planetary landing.

archived recording (diana trujillo)

— estamos de recibir. Hemos llegado! Perseverance llego. Hemos llegado con cuidado —

archived recording

Touchdown confirmed. Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars.

kara swisher

Welcome to “Sway,” Diana.

diana trujillo

Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

kara swisher

I should say Lady Diana. That’s your actual name, correct?

diana trujillo

That’s correct. Actually, it’s Lady Diana.

kara swisher

You have to explain the story. I think it’s wonderful.

diana trujillo

Well, the reason why my name is Lady Diana is because my grandmother, actually, and my mother had picked it. I was born around the time that Lady Diana actually got married. And my grandmother and my mom always expected for me something wonderful to happen. So I think that they named me after her, hoping that things will go better for me. And I feel like it was that girl thing where you’re like, oh, hopefully, she’s going to find the man of her dreams, which turned out to be different because I’m less of a Lady Diana and more of a Princess Warrior-type thing. I mean, I love my husband, but my entire — my mom, my grandma, my great-grandma’s life was all around serving the other person, particularly your partner. And it’s almost like, stay on the sidelines. And so, I felt like if that was what was in store for me, baby, that was not what I wanted. I wanted to do more.

kara swisher

So I want to talk about your personal story of how you got to NASA and why you wanted to become an aerospace engineer.

diana trujillo

O.K., so the way that I got to NASA, it’s an interesting story because I wasn’t supposed to be working at NASA. I came from Colombia when I was 17. I came to the U.S. I didn’t have, really, any money to survive. And I didn’t know any English.

kara swisher

Why did you come?

diana trujillo

There were several things. One of them is, at some point, my family was having an internal family reunion on the opposite direction. So they were divorcing. And at the same time, I am trying to figure out what am I going to do with my life. And my dad actually had an idea of you should try to learn another language if you want to go somewhere else. So I came to the U.S. And then very quickly, I just found myself trying to study English for two years, which I could not handle anymore at some point. I started to go to the math department, just hoping to see if anybody needs any help because I want to do something else that is not English. And I took a class when I was about to finish my English classes. That was astronomy. And this is in Miami Dade Community College. In that class, I remember the teacher very vividly saying, I have a friend who’s an astronaut. And I thought, I can’t believe that there’s somebody that I know that’s standing in front of me that knows an astronaut. And from then on, I decided, let me read about it. What do people actually do, and what their careers are, and then aerospace engineering was the thing. From the practical standpoint, that’s kind of how I found aerospace engineering. But from the personal standpoint, at some point, it was a crossroad in my mind, where — with my family, it was hard from the perspective of what was the expectation for a woman and what women should be doing. And so, it was more of a, I got to pick something that’s hard, something that speaks for itself and I don’t have to explain, “You do realize that women are smart, right?”

kara swisher

So did you have interest in space when you were growing up?

diana trujillo

For me, space had a very romantic idea. Space was the thing that I will go and lay down on the grass and look at the sky and be like, everything is chaotic around me right now, but space is awesome. The sky is awesome. The stars are awesome. No stars are crashing with each other. And I like to say, is like, nothing is happening on the night sky. But everything is happening. The planets are out there. The stars are out there. And everything just is this amazing harmony.

kara swisher

Mm-hmm. So you went to NASA Academy. I had never heard of it. Explain what NASA — how did you get into NASA Academy? What is it? It feels like a movie.

diana trujillo

I know.

kara swisher

Like space students or something. Talk about your experience there and how you got there.

diana trujillo

So the NASA Academy is and, at that time, was also a program where a lot of students apply. And they only pick 20 students that go to Goddard Space Center. And when I was about to graduate from University of Florida, one of my professors sent me this link, say, “Hey, apply here.” And so, I apply and I remember I opened the application. And the application was petrifying. It was so many questions. And every question was, “In no less than 300 words…” Which I was like, O.K., I’m used to going in the other direction, which is, “Don’t tell me too much.” And so for me, English as a second language, when the answer is no less than 300 words, I’m like, O.K., this is not happening. So I filled it out, and then I did not send it. And so I showed my computer to my friend. And he’s like, click. It’s like, what did you just do? He’s like, “Oh, no, I just sent your application.” And I’m like, “No!”

kara swisher

Oh, he submitted for you. Wow. Why did you think you didn’t belong? Why did you think you shouldn’t push that application?

diana trujillo

That’s a good question. I think that I felt like I didn’t belong because you normally have a conversation with somebody about like, “Hey, so what school do you come from?” It’s like, “I’m at M.I.T.” “I’m at Harvard.” “I’m at Purdue.” And they’re like, “What about you?” It’s like, oh, I went to community college to do English, and I’m doing aerospace engineer at University of Florida, which is a good school, but it was crazy going in from the perspective that it’s like — this is your biggest shot of your life. Like, the girl that didn’t know any English now is in an internship at NASA with the most brilliant college students.

kara swisher

So through that, you got a job at NASA.

diana trujillo

Yeah, through that, I got a job at the educational office at Goddard Space Flight Center. And then from there, I had the possibility of actually working for a company that at that instant was called Orbital Sciences Corporation. And then from there, I jumped at JPL, so Jet Propulsion Laboratory here in Pasadena.

kara swisher

Explain what the Jet Propulsion Laboratory does.

diana trujillo

Yeah, so NASA JPL is one of the many NASA centers that we have on the states. And really, JPL is known for a lot of things. But one of the things they are known for the most is our interplanetary exploration missions.

kara swisher

Now Perseverance isn’t your first mission to Mars, right? You worked on Curiosity.

diana trujillo

I did. I worked on Curiosity. As soon as I started to work at JPL, I worked for, soon, the Constellation Program, which was to take humans to the moon and Mars. And then I switched to Curiosity.

kara swisher

And why is that?

diana trujillo

So when I was at the NASA Academy, I remember reading about this mission called MSL — Mars Science Laboratory. And they also had this laser-beam eye instrument called ChemCam. And so I remember my group project in NASA Academy, I picked the ChemCam as the — this is the instrument we should take. And so now, fast-forward, I’m working at NASA JPL. And I’m like, wait, on the other side of where I’m sitting on my cubicle is the people that work on the thing that I — in college — was dying to know more about. So the way that I end up working is I remember I went to the Entry, Descent, and Landing Lead at that point, who was the supervisor literally behind my cubicle. And I’m like, “Listen, I know you don’t know me. But give me a job. I’ll do anything, anything you want. I’ll take the trash can out every day if you want.”

kara swisher

Why did that interest you? The idea of putting these machines essentially on Mars to do things?

diana trujillo

This mission, not only it sounds like a comic book, right? Like laser-beam eye, nuclear-power robot. Who does not want to work on that? And so I think that, to me, was more of a, why would you not want to be part of this? Why would you not want to be part of the thing that’s going to start answering the pieces, the building blocks, of, are we alone?

kara swisher

So why is the answer on Mars?

diana trujillo

We know that there was water on Mars. We know it has a very thin atmosphere. We know from Curiosity that actually had the chemical composition to sustain life. So all the answers are like, check, check, check. Now, we got to ask, was there life?

kara swisher

So tell me about how you prepared for Perseverance trip to Mars. And what exactly did you need to do to get that answer?

diana trujillo

So when I joined Perseverance, I was a deputy phase lead for the S.C.S. system, which is the Sample and Caching System. What that meant was I was the responsible system engineer for the robotic arm — the two instruments that go on the turret of the arm. So a way to picture is literally like your arm — shoulder, elbow, wrist. And then, in your hand, two instruments. So two fingers of your hand — just put it that way — PIXL, SHERLOC. SHERLOC is one finger. And then, PIXL is the other finger. And so my job — which I loved, like, I have not had so much fun in a job like that — was to get the robotic arm and those two instruments through the clean room into the rocket. So the clean room is where we assembled the rover. And we keep it — just like the name — clean right before we send it to the Cape. The robotic arm shows up into the clean room. The team that works in the clean room mechanically mounts the arm, and then electrically also connects it. And then, now, it’s like, all right, you guys — which is now the robotic arm science team — make sure that one, we know we mechanically did it right and electrically too. But your job is to make sure that you can actually command it and show that that is performing properly after we made that ginormous move.

kara swisher

So what are you looking for exactly for this arm to do?

diana trujillo

The way that this actually works is that you got the robotic arm with the two instruments. The job of those two instruments is to do a scan of the surface to actually understand the signature of what they’re looking at, and then get a better understanding of what’s the composition of the areas that they’re looking. With that information, the scientists will then go ahead and say, O.K., here’s where it’s looking more like we can find what we’re after. Once the scientists identify that zone, then the robotic arm on the actual hand — which is a turret — has a drill. The drill itself is the one that picks up the sample, puts it on the tube. We process those tubes. And that’s when we cache it.

kara swisher

So you are the one that goes and gets what the scientists need. And the samples can lead us to the answers you were talking about, of life on Mars or what had happened to life on Mars. So what was the feeling among you and your colleagues leading up to this going off?

diana trujillo

My team’s job is like full-on adrenaline. I feel like if I was a NASCAR driver, it would be like, I’m NASCAR-driving for two years straight. Like, I’m not getting out of the car. [LAUGHTER] And so when we — we were here. We did all the testing. Everything was packed. And the Rover goes to the Cape. This is in March. The pandemic has escalated. Everybody — we’re going into lockdown. People go to home. And I’m thinking, like, what do you mean? My team is on the airplane. So I’m recalling all my team. And on that Thursday, and Friday, Saturday, we are like, how are we going to do this? First time ever doing the remote activities with the robotic arm in the middle of the pandemic. Everybody’s on the phone call. We can’t see — but we did it. We did the final check-up. We were able to electrically integrate PIXL and then do the actual motions that we needed to do.

kara swisher

Wow. I can’t believe it went off. Did you ever worry that it might not work?

diana trujillo

You know, no. That never crosses my mind. But my biggest relief was on Saturday, March 21, 2020. I’m on the phone call with my Robotic Arm System Engineer, Doug Klein. He’s there. And he’s like, O.K., launch lock completed. Arm launch lock done. And we’re ready. Anything else can go wrong. But we’re done. We can just throw the mic and leave. And we just did the first unstow of the arm on the surface of Mars, almost —

kara swisher

A year later.

diana trujillo

Almost a year.

kara swisher

Yeah, it landed on February 18, 2021. So now that you successfully landed, and your arm is deployed — which is no big deal. I mean, it was probably harder to put this podcast together — you’re on Mars-time. Explain what Mars-time is. I can hardly understand the difference between — you’re in Los Angeles right now, but you’re actually live on Mars-time. What is that?

diana trujillo

Yeah. So what that means is that we try to time exactly the instances where the spacecraft looks a specific downlink times on Mars. So the long-story short here is it’s all based on when the data hits the ground — which is the instance where our day starts, where we say, O.K., talk to us. We hear you. We can now do all the analysis. And that’s when the day starts. So because we don’t have 24 hours on Mars — we have 24 hours and a little bit more- – we started tracking that decisional path as the day moves. And the decisional path also moves with the orbiter. So we’re just shifting our schedule. For example, last week, we started the schedule at midnight. So we were working from midnight until 10:00 A.M. And then, we do that until — like this week, we’re about to do it starting at 3:00 A.M. instead of at midnight. And so we started walking throughout the clock.

kara swisher

Talk me through what you’re doing every day.

diana trujillo

I have the blessing and the pleasure to be one of the flight directors for surface. And so what that means is when we’re doing downlink, I am the tactic responsible lead to make sure that all the folks that are doing the analysis of every single part of the spacecraft — one, that we’re looking at the right angles of that data. That anything that looks strange we’re digging in. That we’re making sure that everything that we analyze is telling us that the rover is O.K. or is not. If the rover weren’t O.K., and we happen to have an anomaly, then it will be my team in concordance now with project management and the anomaly response team to work out the problem and figure out how we’re going to recover the spacecraft. But we’ve been doing so well. We’re not there.

kara swisher

So right now, it’s in the — is it the Jezero Crater?

diana trujillo

Yeah. So right now, we landed on the Jezero Crater. It’s a delta. So if you look at the pictures — and it looks like a fan. And it’s really cool. Because if you were to put water on it, you could just picture like, oh, here goes the river, and then fans out. And on the fanning out, you can see all the little canals that are created as it’s actually fanning out. And so it forces you to imagine what it could have been.

kara swisher

So what have you found so far? It’s been moving yet? Or is it still where it landed?

diana trujillo

We’re on the move. We are driving — so I believe our last drive was approximately 26 meters. One of the many amazing things that this mission has is a helicopter. For the first time, we’re going to fly on another planet. And so we’re on the move right now to try to figure out — take pictures. And in the meantime, while you’re driving, can you also go ahead and check the drill? Check all the systems that we need to cache the sample. And then, also, do some extra science with the instruments that you have already checked out.

kara swisher

And then, have you picked up any samples? When does that start?

diana trujillo

We will be able to talk about that more — maybe in a few months is when we will get down to maybe even attempt to do something like that for sample. But the thing about the sample is that we first need to pick the perfect place. And that will be the scientist to tell us where to go. Right now, we’re doing checkouts.

kara swisher

Right. And then, when you get those samples, when you drill and you pull them up, can they be studied right there?

diana trujillo

Yeah. So once we actually collect the sample, and we put it in a caching tube, the next mission is the one that actually comes and gets it. We don’t come back. We’re just doing the science on-site. And so the next mission, which is a Mars Sample Return, once it lands, it has a fetch rover that goes down and look for the tubes that Perseverance cached, picks them up. And on the platform of the rocket on the same thing that it landed, takes off and brings them back to Earth. So the estimation is probably 2031 is when they think that the sample will be coming back. But right now, we’re just focused on the new baby of the family which is Perseverance.

kara swisher

So let’s say everything goes according to plan. And we can definitely say that there’s life. They bring back the samples. That’s a huge deal. But then what? I mean, how does that change my life or anyone’s life here on the planet to know if there was life on Mars? What do we do with that knowledge?

diana trujillo

What you’re getting at, in my opinion, is, why do we explore? And I think that we explore for many, many different reasons. There’s people like me who feel the drive and the personal need to understand how things work. That’s one aspect. The other aspect is understanding and exploring other planets, particularly Mars, can help us understand what happened to Mars. So we can take care of our own planet in a much better way. And then, understanding you were alone in the universe I think is the most basic fundamental question of our entire existence. Why would we not want to answer something like that? We can develop technology, help humanity, understand our place in the universe, all of that by doing space exploration and more.

kara swisher

So without proof yet, you do not think we are alone, correct?

diana trujillo

No. I don’t think we’re alone. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with the Head of Space Force, General John Raymond. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Diana Trujillo after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Space exploration has always been a race between countries. It’s always seen as that. Do you see that escalating or decreasing in the future, the idea that it’s a space race?

diana trujillo

It’s interesting that you say space exploration always looks like a race. I’ve never seen it like a race.

kara swisher

Right. But it had. There was a whole space race, like, we’re going to get to the moon first. We’re going to get to this first. Is that over, that idea that it’s a race?

diana trujillo

I see it as it’s over. It’s true that it started with the race. But that’s something that predates me. So the space exploration that I have been doing and the team that I work with, we don’t have the conversation of, who’s going to get there first? No. That’s not for us. I think that the way that we explore is we’re exploring to understand more and to understand the universe and our place. So I see it more as the idea of, we’re there to observe and learn and respect. And not go there and then dominate.

kara swisher

You know, I just interviewed Space Force General John Raymond recently. And he told me that part of their mission is protect American assets from foreign threats in space. He said, “Space underpins our national defense. It underpins our intelligence capabilities. It underpins scientific exploration.” And added, “There is a significant threat from adversaries.” Are the threats from so-called adversaries something you and NASA consider for your missions or not at all?

diana trujillo

No. I understand that concept. But I am lucky to not have to worry about those things and instead learn.

kara swisher

Right. So NASA, of course, is a federal agency which has been funded by the government and the American people. But you partner with private companies like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX among others. Can you explain how those partnerships work?

diana trujillo

Yeah. So really the way that I see it is, space exploration — it’s already a very hard job. And if we’re trying to push for diversity in ideas — not only within the team, by having diverse teams to look at the same problem from different angles — the same needs to happen with the industry. We are different people, different industries in this specific case, where different companies are good at different areas. The way that we can really push this — if we really want to get humans to Mars and beyond — we got to call everybody up. And then say, bring the best of you, bring the best that you can do, and just join the party. Because one single entity is not going to get it done. One single company is not going to get it done.

kara swisher

And there’s also the financial consideration, because they’re bringing up people for a lot of money and giving you the money. One of the aims of these partnerships is to save agency money and still have resources, correct? They are doing different things that might cost enormous amounts of money.

diana trujillo

Yeah. We do different missions. And so I think that — yeah, the question that you’re asking me is, how does the distribution actually occurs? That will be a question for somebody else. But I can tell you that from my perspective is, if those companies can get the job done, why will we not partner with them?

kara swisher

Yeah. I just wrote a column saying, I do appreciate that they’re doing this. But the idea of two billionaires essentially having so much influence on the industry and on a public agency — I always think it’s the government’s mission to do big ideas like space exploration.

diana trujillo

Yeah. I think — yes, there’s two billionaires trying to actually do this that like rockets. And? Are we going to do more? Are we going to go to space more? Are we going to increase that? Can you then eventually tell me, “Hey, I’m going to take the 5 o’clock shuttle to Mars?” Why would you not want to do that? To me, it doesn’t really matter if there are two billionaires, if there’s five billionaires, if they’re zero billionaires. The question to me is not that. The question to me is how can we actually push this more and not get entangled into the other stuff that do not allow us to continue to progress.

kara swisher

Are you worried about — my worry is that two people have influence that all the people of the Earth should have. We all should make these decisions together, not because we happen to be wealthier than other people. That’s all. Just this idea that this is a thing greater than individuals. It’s about a civilization making a decision together. And I’d rather have you in charge than others. That’s all I have to say. [LAUGHTER] If you get my drift.

diana trujillo

No, no. I totally hear you. But I also know that we can’t do it alone.

kara swisher

Right. So SpaceX just announced the first all-civilian mission, which is slated for late 2021. How do you feel about the idea of civilians in space?

diana trujillo

I think that’s great.

kara swisher

Why is that? Tell me why you think that’s important.

diana trujillo

You know what? I love your question because of how you finished the last one. Which is — you talked about, we should be making these decisions collectively and not just specific people that have the privilege to bring the seat to the table. But how can we make the decisions collectively if we cannot take civilians? We’re also not making it collectively. So I think that opening it up and bringing civilians to space is almost like saying, come and be part of the decision-making by experiencing this yourself and knowing how it is.

kara swisher

So right now, it’s very expensive. The reported seat on the SpaceX Crew Dragon with an eight-night stay on the International Space Station is a whopping $55 million. When is it can become actually affordable versus a lot of rich people wandering around space essentially?

diana trujillo

So I don’t know about the timeline. The only thing that I can tell you is — my husband works for Virgin Orbit. He’s the V.P. of special projects. And we have this conversation of when is it going to be. And so I think that what gives me encouragement is the possibility was not on the radar. And now, it’s on the radar. And we’re continuing to work to make it less and less expensive once there is more market.

kara swisher

Are you worried about the effect of space tourism when it comes to issues like space debris and fighting or anything else humans can manage to do up there? You said you were lying on the ground looking up there, and it’s so simple there and so complex here on Earth.

diana trujillo

Yes. Am I concerned about humans doing that? Do we have the track record of taking care of Earth? Not really. But do I think that we deep in our hearts don’t care about what’s happening? Not really. So I think that it’s a balance. I can’t answer that question because I think that all of that is hanging on the answer of the question that Perseverance is trying to answer, which is, are we alone? I think that right now, there’s many, many reasons why we need more resources. And different people see resources differently, and achieve them differently, or get them without asking. But there is also the other aspect of it, which is — I believe that there will be a turning point when we find out that we’re not alone in the universe. And at that point, we can start seeing things more peacefully instead of, more, it’s there for the taking.

kara swisher

So do you think we should live on Mars or think about a multi-planetary experience?

Or another planet that would be amenable to us? Or like Jeff Bezos’s thing in the sky that floats around? His spaceship in the sky with trees?

diana trujillo

I think there’s two questions there. Should we do it? And I would say, if we can, more to you. If you want to do that, that’s great. It’s not for me to say what you should do. But should we move on and go for a multi-planetary species? Because we can’t live on Earth because Earth is all damaged or whatever. I don’t believe that. We don’t just destroy and keep moving. We take care of it. And so I think that the reason why we should move on to Mars is just more for the exploration aspect and not because we’re done with Earth.

kara swisher

Will you be going to Mars one day? Do you want to travel in the cosmos?

diana trujillo

I would like to. Yes.

kara swisher

Would you like to live there?

diana trujillo

No.

kara swisher

No. You want to come back?

diana trujillo

I want to come back.

kara swisher

So how are you going to get there? You’ve sent an arm. You’ve sent fingers. You’ve sent mechanical everything. How are you going to — this blob of cells going to get there? I don’t mean to call you a blob. But we all are blobs of cells.

diana trujillo

No, yeah. My personal plan right now is I actually want to go the NASA route. And you know my relationship with applications. So you know why I haven’t applied yet — [LAUGHTER]

kara swisher

Yes, yes, yes, yes. I’ll push the button. Submit. Oh, sorry. Bye. See you later.

diana trujillo

Yes.

kara swisher

OK, good. All right. Thank you, Diana. Thank you so much. I’m going to let you go because I know you have a thing. But I appreciate it.

diana trujillo

Thank you so much for having me.

kara swisher

Bye.

diana trujillo

Bye. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, Daphne Chen, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Erick Gomez, and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair and Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts. So follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you, download any podcast app, then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday with plenty of episodes to keep you entertained on the 5 o’clock shuttle to Mars.

April 8, 2021

Produced by ‘Sway’

In a few days, a helicopter is slated to take off — on Mars. If successful, it would be a historic moment for NASA: the first powered flight of an aircraft in the atmosphere of another planet.

The Ingenuity chopper arrived on the red planet in February, attached to the Perseverance rover as part of a mission that ultimately aims to determine whether there has ever been life on Mars. Diana Trujillo, the flight director in charge of Perseverance’s robotic arm, has a bold prediction, saying, “I don’t think we’re alone.”

[Listen to Kara Swisher discuss this episode and more on Twitter Live.]

On this episode of “Sway,” Kara Swisher and Trujillo discuss the high-stakes operation, the implications of extraterrestrial life, and why private investments by billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk might help us advance space travel to a point where we could “take the 5 o’clock shuttle to Mars.”

Imageimage
Credit…Illustration by The New York Times; Photograph, via NASA

Thoughts? Email us at sway@nytimes.com. Transcripts of each episode are available midday.

Special thanks to Michelle Harris, Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa.

“Sway” is hosted by Kara Swisher, produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong and Daphne Chen, and edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman; fact-checking by Kate Sinclair; music and sound design by Isaac Jones; mixing by Erick Gomez.

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