The Canadian Who Helped Land the NASA Mars Rover

Share

We spoke to the Quebec‑born, Los Angeles‑based engineer who helped land NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars in February, about why she wants to visit Mars (but not stay for good), her love of climbing and the seven most stressful minutes of her life.

enRoute What did it feel like when the rover finally reached its destination, after you’d been working on the mission for so long?

Farah Alibay We were excited, but nervous, too, because there was nothing we could do to change how things played out. When the landing was complete and we heard the word “touchdown,” we were so happy – we could finally breathe a sigh of relief. The realization that we’d arrived on another planet was simply unreal.

ER You’ve said that the seven minutes before the landing were the most critical. What was going on at your headquarters at the time?

FA We had live data, so we knew exactly what was happening step by step: the separation of the solar panels, the opening of the parachute, the separation of the parachute and the activation of the jetpack for the landing. There was no way I could stay in my chair, so I paced around in my corner while watching the data come in, trying to breathe to relieve my stress. Those were the seven fastest and yet longest minutes of my life.

June 25, 2021
NASA engineer Farah Alibay stands in front of a window that looks down on a NAS facility; on the right-hand side of the frame are a diverse group of people asking her interview questions.
Quebec‑born Farah Alibay at the NASA Social event.

ER Is travelling to Mars one of your dreams?

FA I would like to become an astronaut one day, even if only to travel into space to see Earth. I would definitely like to visit Mars, but I wouldn’t want to live there. It’s a rather harsh environment, and that’s why I like what I do: I explore with my eyes.

ER What do you think about people who want to live on Mars?

FA I get a bit of a chuckle out of that – I have to remind them how cold it is there, between ‑40°C and ‑50°C. It’s great to explore our solar system, and it’s a dream that’s certainly worth pursuing, but our planet is Earth and it’s the most beautiful one we have – we need to look after it.

ER What else would you like to explore in the universe?

FA What’s really interesting right now is research into exoplanets. We’re looking for planets that might resemble ours, and we’ve found tons of them. It’s a super‑fascinating field.

NASA engineer Farah Alibay lies on her stomach facing the camera underneath the Mars rover Perseverance in a field of dry dirt with some outbuildings behind her.
Alibay beneath the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars on February 18, 2021.

ER And in our solar system?

FA In our solar system, I have a favourite moon. It’s one of the moons of Saturn, named Enceladus. It’s extremely interesting: Since it has an ocean covered in ice, we can surmise that life may have existed there due to the presence of water and tides.

ER What kinds of destinations do you seek out on Earth?

FA I spend a lot of time outside, and, because my partner and I are into climbing, we often head for the hills. We’re lucky to live in California, where there are some terrific mountains. It would be a dream to go to Kilimanjaro or South Africa to do some climbing.

ER Perseverance will be on vacation in September. Are you going to take some time off too?

FA Yes. Toward the end of September, there’s a period when Mars will be on the other side of the sun in relation to Earth and we won’t be able to communicate with Perseverance, so we’re giving it a vacation and we’ll take a break as well. I hope to visit my family in Quebec, pandemic permitting.

ER Do you miss Quebec?

FA I’ve lived in many different countries, but when I return to Quebec, I feel at home. It’s always special to come back.

ER What’s the first thing you always do when you return to Quebec?

FA Right after landing, I have a coffee at the Tim Hortons in the Montreal airport. I also pick up some St‑Viateur bagels, because you can’t get anything like them anywhere else.