Moogega “Moo” Cooper arguably has one of the most important cleaning jobs in the world.
Operating out of the Pasadena, California, Jet Propulsion Laboratory — a NASA field center and research and development outpost — a cleaning mistake by Cooper and her team could alter the course of space research as we know it. The 32-year-old is the planetary protection lead for the Mars 2020 mission, which means it’s her job to ensure that when the 2020 rover touches down on the Red Planet, it won’t contaminate it or alter the ecosystem, if life exists there, in any way.
“We don’t want to make Mars sick,” Cooper says.
Humans have immune systems, she continues, but Mars does not, so to ensure its preservation, Mars rovers traveling from Earth must be a pinnacle of purity. This is a painstaking process; approximately 10% of the car-sized spacecraft must be swabbed and tested. Performed by Cooper, another planetary protection engineer, and the rest of her team, the process strategically divides the 10% so that they screen each component of the spacecraft for bacteria — from the parachute to the vents and everything in between.
That’s because while there’s a positive side to bacteria — like when humans have digestive issues and can eat specific ones to improve their health — they also have the potential to be extraordinarily destructive, Cooper says. She points to the sci-fi thriller by Michael Crichton “The Andromeda Strain” as an example. In it, an American satellite contaminated with a dangerous microorganism from outer space crashes into an Arizona town and causes a deadly outbreak.
While Crichton’s tale is fictional, bacteria’s potential for destruction is not. If the 2020 rover were to contaminate Mars, it could ruin researchers’ chances to study it, Cooper says.
“We want to understand what may be native to Mars if at all — if there’s life there at all,” explains Cooper, adding that the Curiosity rover did find signs that water had existed on the planet.
The 2020 rover is just its working title, explains Cooper. Typically for missions, the rovers are named by someone from the public — usually through a competition — resulting in names like Curiosity, Sojourner, and Spirit.
Like our cars, space vehicles need spare parts, so it’s Cooper’s job to keep checking on new components being produced. She’s flown to Spain and the Netherlands to test specific scientific instruments — and the packaging they’re being shipped in — that NASA outsources from international collaborators.
While Cooper is presently employed by one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the country, she wasn’t always science-minded. She was even mediocre in math and science, she says. In fact, she was enrolled in remedial courses in the subjects and received B’s, C’s, and even D’s. It wasn’t until middle school when she checked out “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan from a library that she was hit by a revelation, she says. She knew then she wanted to become an astrophysicist.
This newfound motivation pushed her to work harder in math and science courses, she explains, and encouraged her to put more effort into understanding the underlying principles of these studies. Soon, being exemplary kind of became Cooper’s thing. She graduated high school at age 16, and after getting a bachelor’s in physics, she received her masters and doctorate in mechanical engineering by age 24.
“I actually wanted to graduate even sooner from high school, and I didn’t; I actually failed,” Cooper says. “It really taught me that it didn’t have to be ‘win, win, win, success’ all the time.”
As Cooper describes it, she was part of the “reject” group in school that sat in the halls during lunch. When school was out, she’d stack summer classes to accumulate as many high school credits as possible in an attempt to graduate early. Cooper now works long hours at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has a vast swath of young scientists including Bobak Ferdowsi, the scientist widely known as just “ Mohawk Guy.” It’s an “odd utopian exception” to the stereotype of NASA workers, the “Apollo generation” folks that include a large population of “gray beards,” Cooper says.
When she’s not flexing brainpower, she’s making near-daily visits to the gym (even rocket scientists work out!) or trying to recruit people — especially those underrepresented in her field, like women and people of color. Cooper has spoken everywhere from local schools to the improvisation comedy theater Upright Citizens Brigade to a recent space expo in Long Beach, California. She is heartened by the swell of public interest in NASA and its pursuits; even non-scientists have excitedly monitored the Space X launch, Cooper notes.
In a sign of resistance to the Trump era, in which political leaders deny fundamental scientific facts such as climate change, operations like NASA have reached a type of pop culture status. Companies like Forever 21, Target, and Urban Outfitters are selling NASA T-shirts, and when Lego released a Women of NASA set last year, it sold out on Amazon in just 24 hours.
While this forward momentum is encouraging for those who want underrepresented groups to be involved with science, not all progress comes without collateral damage.
Although Cooper is focused on the rover’s launch — or, as she calls it over email, her “rover baby” — and its anticipated return to Earth with rock and soil samples, there’s a bit of a space race brewing. In the private sector, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk are on a quest to colonize Mars, and this could change the long-term game. Musk sent a Tesla Roadster into space aboard a SpaceX rocket in early 2018 with a mannequin behind the wheel, but he has long stated that he ultimately aims to send humans to the Red Planet and make us a multiplanetary species.
The only problem, Cooper says: Humans are a cesspool of bacteria (in a good way). If humans are sent to Mars, even if they’re contained to a localized region, winds and other environmental factors could spread contaminants all over the planet.
“My job is going to be completely different if not obsolete if we send humans,” Cooper concludes.