Dr. Moogega “Moo” Cooper

Lessons from a rover

Work on Mars Perseverance rover taught Dr. Moogega Cooper to be curious, questioning.

November 15, 2022

Spacecraft have been going to Mars since the 1960s, but the question remains whether life ever existed on the Red Planet. In order for NASA scientists to seek that answer, they had to remember to what it was like to be a child and be curious.

“Mars has captured our curiosity since we had a telescope that could gaze at that planet,” says Dr. Moogega “Moo” Cooper. “And that curiosity still stands. Are we alone in the universe? Did life exist there?”

During a keynote address at the 2022 CUNA Lending Council Conference in San Diego, Cooper talked about her role in NASA’s search for determining whether life ever existed on Mars. An engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Cooper was responsible for keeping Mars safe from Earth’s contaminants as a planetary protector on the Mars Perseverance rover mission.


In short, she was tasked with ensuring no “earth germs” were on any part of the rover sent to Mars to collect samples. NASA wanted to avoid introducing new things to the Red Planet’s environment.

Cooper had been working on the mission for seven years before the COVID pandemic struck and the entire JPL team was ordered to work from home on March 12, 2020. As the July launch date neared, key members of the team returned to the lab to continue preparing the rover for launch.

“We had the weight on our shoulders of getting this done with a skeleton crew and getting it right,” she says.

While the team missed the first launch date, the Perseverance rover was launched to Mars on July 30, 2020.

‘Mars has captured our curiosity since we had a telescope that could gaze at that planet.’
Dr. Moogega Cooper

During her time working on the Mars Perseverance rover mission, Cooper says she learned four things:

  1. Maintain a child-like curiosity. Keep asking questions, especially “what if.” This could lead to discovering new ways of doing things. Cooper notes that curiosity was why the Perseverance rover had cameras onboard to capture video throughout the landing process.
  2. Rules are meant to be questioned. Know the intent of the rule, but don’t let that limit your out-of-the-box thinking.
  3. Trust your team. Bring together a team with diverse backgrounds that bring different perspectives to a project. One member of the Perseverance rover team had a Ph.D. in origami and was able to assist with figuring out the best way to deploy the rover’s star shield. “The team makes it successful. There is no I,” Cooper says. “There’s always a group that comes together to achieve a goal.”
  4. Have a common goal. To be successful, a team must all work toward the same goal. “Remember what the common goal is, why you are all there, and what you’re striving to do,” Cooper says.

 These lessons will allow you to continue to move forward, Cooper believes.

“As you’re standing on the edge of your knowledge, you have to keep these lessons in mind,” Cooper says. “They help push you to another place. Keep them in mind as you venture to the next step on your journey.”