Moogega Cooper, a planetary protection engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and avid science educator, will receive an honorary degree and address the Class of 2022 at Drexel University’s College of Engineering commencement ceremony on Wednesday, June 8 at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.
Cooper, mechanical engineering MS ’08 PhD ’10, was the lead planetary protection specialist for the Mars 2020 mission, overseeing the cleanliness of the designs of the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter. Her job was to make sure that spacecraft that we send to other celestial bodies don’t carry germs and other microbes from Earth.
“Throughout the process of building the spacecraft, we kept it in a clean room and continuously took swabs to be sure that it hadn’t picked up any contamination,” she explains. “The entire design of Perseverance is intended to ensure that we don’t bring any of Earth to Mars.”
Cooper finished high school at 16 and graduated summa cum laude from Hampton University with a major in physics and a minor in space, earth, and atmospheric sciences. She then came to Drexel to study mechanical engineering and mechanics.
“I chose mechanical engineering because it has so much hands-on practicality,” she says. “It feeds that part of me that wants to have direct interaction with what I’m studying.”
While at Drexel, Cooper worked with Alexander Fridman, PhD, John A. Nyheim Chair Professor and Director of the C. J. Nyheim Plasma Institute on using plasmas to disinfect spacecraft materials. The technology hasn’t been used in any of her professional projects, but no matter what the methods, Cooper’s priority is protecting the solar system.
“We see so many examples of how an ecosystem can be impacted by a microbe that is introduced into a new environment,” Cooper says. “You can see good impacts like when we consume probiotics, but it isn’t always positive. We’ve seen examples on earth where whole ecosystems can completely change. We can’t allow something like that to happen on another planet.”
With what time she has to spare when she’s not protecting the galaxy, Cooper is involved in several science outreach programs and has appeared on a number of TV shows, including Discovery’s How the Universe Works and Netflix’s Bill Nye Saves the World. She says that she hopes to provide the same kind of inspiration for young people that Carl Sagan’s seminal documentary series Cosmos gave her when she saw it as a child.
“My mantra for life is anyone can understand any topic if you make it accessible for them,” she says. “The great thing about NASA is that most of the people I work with are excited to share their expertise and want you to understand the concepts they’re working on. I’m happy to be part of that tradition.”
“Dr. Cooper was recently nicknamed a real life ‘guardian of the galaxy,’ and it's clear to see why - she is exactly the kind of science educator the world needs,” says Sharon L. Walker, PhD, Dean of Drexel’s College of Engineering. “Making engineering approachable and clearly communicating the importance of responsible science is an important step in cultivating the next generation of great engineers, beginning with our graduates.”