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‘When I saw the footage of the landing I shed a few tears’ Growing up in Russia, Olga Filimonova dreamed about outer space. Now she works for NASA and helps send rovers to Mars.

Source: Meduza
Olga Filimonova’s perosnal archive

Olga Filimonova grew up in Petrozavodsk, a small city in northwestern Russia. Ever since she was a child she dreamed about outer space and was fond of mathematics, but when she didn’t get into the math program at St. Petersburg State University she switched to studying English. After moving to the United States, however, she went back to pursuing her cosmos dreams. Today, she’s been an engineer at NASA for more than six years. Among other things, she worked on the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021. In her own words, Filimonova tells Meduza about her journey to get to NASA, her work on the Perseverance rover, and her dreams for the future of space exploration.

During my childhood, many children wanted to become astronauts. For some, this burned out quickly but I held on to this desire for a very long time. I often looked at the stars and thought about outer space. I had a friend and together we discussed [space] constantly: is there life on other planets? What’s time? Do aliens exist? We were very interested in this topic and came up with different theories constantly.

At school, I liked math most of all, so after graduation I planned to enter the Mathematics Faculty at St. Petersburg State University, and then see what I could become. But I had no thoughts about being able to work in the space field in Russia — I just wanted to study mathematics.

I didn’t get into where I wanted to go [because of the exams]. As a result, I applied to Petrozavodsk State University — to the Philology Faculty, for in-depth study of the English language. My second favorite subject was English, so I decided to study that.

During our fifth year of university my friends and I decided to take part in an Au pair program, in order to go to the United States for a year and practice the language. I submitted the application in September–October and then I was looking for a host family for a long time. As a result, I left for the states in April [2004], having managed to pass the state exams, but without getting to defend my diploma.

At the time I was 22 years old. My early days in America were difficult: a different culture, a different environment. At times I thought about giving it all up and going back to Russia. Mainly due to the fact that my whole family was still there. But while working for the family I found girlfriends who were also from Russia — they supported me and helped me. And my friend from Petrozavodsk was with me.

At first, I lived with a family in Maryland, then I went with my friend to New York and spent about three months there. After that, we decided to see the West Coast and went to Los Angeles. There I met my husband [a U.S. citizen] and I finally decided to stay.

It took me about six years to fully adapt and love Los Angeles. The main problem is the lack of real friends. [Only] when they appeared was I able to fully love the city and enjoy life.

Olga Filimonova’s personal archive

At 25, I enrolled in community college. For a while I worked as a bank teller and studied at the same time, but then I found a job at the college. When I was 28, I became a third-year student at UCLA. There was a program for California residents — if your family’s income was less than $70,000 per year, you could study for free. As such, I didn't pay a penny for my education, though I took out a student loan to have something to live on. I received my bachelor’s degree in Space Engineering and continued studying for my master’s. To pay for it — and again, to have something to live on — I took out another student loan, which I’m still paying off.

At UCLA there was a professor who worked for NASA/JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory]. He was looking for interns to work at NASA and I applied. As an intern at JPL I worked with ion and Hall thrusters. We conducted experiments in vacuum chambers to test the thrusters and studied the effects of plasma on solar panels.

I worked with very good people at NASA, so at the end of my studies I realized that I wanted to stay there. So I started knocking on everyone’s doors and looking for a job. In theory, I wouldn’t mind working for [Russia’s state space agency] Roscosmos, but to be honest, I’m not following their work now.

At first I was hired as a temporary worker [at NASA] — on a team where we created simulated space dust. We needed to figure out how to properly design the arm of a space robot that could collect this dust. Then I worked with a group of engineers where we sent commands to the Mars rover Opportunity at the request of scientists. 

After that, I was hired for a full-time job on the Mars 2020 project, as a mass properties engineer. I collected data on every part of the Perseverance rover and the ship that takes it [to Mars]: where [the part] is located, how much it weighs, and what are its properties. 

The first part of the work was at the computer, I did statistical analysis of the data using the Monte Carlo method. There were a lot of teams working on the project and many of them needed this data. In order to calculate the “stress” [the load on the rover], you need to know where its center of gravity is. This data is also needed for the spacecraft to maneuver [safely]. 

I also designed the balance masses. These are needed to adjust the spaceship’s center of gravity. There were even balancers that were thrown from it [the spacecraft] to regulate the center of gravity during the entry into Mars’s atmosphere and before the deployment of the parachute.

When the rover landed [on the surface of Mars], I felt great pride in myself and the entire team. It was hard to believe that we had succeeded. We put cameras on the rover and when I saw the footage of the landing I shed a few tears from happiness. I was especially glad that my balancers on the rover didn’t fall off and withstood all the shaking.

Perseverance Rover’s Descent and Touchdown on Mars (Official NASA Video)

[That said] most of the work day at NASA/JPL is spent in meetings: this is necessary so there’s no disconnect between the teams. JPL looks like a campus with many buildings so sometimes you have to walk a lot [to get] from one meeting to another. Everyone works according to their own schedules. When my son was born, I came to work from 6:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.. Before the pandemic I worked in the office, but now many having been working from home for a year already, myself included. 

A year before the launch of the Mars rover, I started working on a new project in parallel — it’s called the Europa Clipper. We’ll be sending a spaceship to Europa, Jupiter’s moon. There, we’ll study Europa’s magnetic field and ice sheet. My role is the same as it was in the Mars 2020 project; I’m also working on the design of some of the parts. The launch date is scheduled for 2024. 

NASA has many other projects, as well. For example, the Psyche project is currently being prepared: [it aims] to send a spaceship to an asteroid that has no crust. Roughly speaking, it’s a metal ball located between Mars and Jupiter.

We began another Mars mission not so long ago — a continuation of the Mars 2020 project. The rover that’s there now will collect rock materials and deposit samples in test tubes. A second robot will collect these samples, which will then be delivered back to Earth.

In the future, I would like to see people travelling freely in space — like in science fiction films. Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to reach this in our lifetimes. But it’s quite likely that we will get to see space bases on the Moon and, perhaps, on Mars. Already a device has been installed on the Perseverance rover that produces oxygen from Mars’s atmosphere. It’s quite possible that these experiments will allow us to produce oxygen in the necessary quantities for humans in the future. 

Interview by Alexey Shumkin

Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart