Christopher Pong ’04: Mars Calling

The words “touchdown confirmed” broadcast through Mission Control brought a rush of joy and relief for NASA Guidance and Control Engineer Christopher Pong ’04 when he heard that the Perseverance rover had successfully landed on Mars after a seven-month journey. The February 2021 landing was a culmination of nearly five years of work for Pong as an engineer within NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, where he developed software to ensure the spacecraft was properly oriented during its cruise to Mars.

Perseverance rover’s mission is to search for signs of ancient microbial life to advance NASA’s quest to explore the past habitability of Mars, and to pave the way for future human exploration of the planet. After years of testing and training, the moment leading up to the rover’s landing was filled with adrenaline as the world watched. Pong was fortunate enough to be representing his team from Mission Control, while fellow team members watched from elsewhere due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“During the final moments, it was overwhelming,” Pong recalls. “You see so little information from the vehicle, hear the nervous chatter around you, and feel the weight of how much is resting on this one moment. Luckily, you could fall back on the idea that many years were spent testing to find and fill any holes in the system and there was literally nothing you could do to change the outcome starting at an hour before entry, descent and landing.”

Now that Perseverance rover has landed, Pong will embark on his next project as the guidance and control systems engineering lead on the proposed Mars Sample Retrieval mission, which will pick up samples that Perseverance collects and launch them off the surface of Mars to be returned back to Earth.

Though Pong’s work now literally extends across space, he hasn’t forgotten how his career launched. “It was my love of math and physics that really convinced me to go into engineering and I definitely attribute my success to the many great teachers I’ve had along the way,” he says.

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