Biden says Indian-Americans are “taking over the country” on a call with NASA


Yashwant Raj

Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Mar. 5—Indian-Americans are “taking over the country”, US President Joe Biden said lightheartedly during a congratulatory call with Nasa’s aerospace engineer Swati Mohan on Thursday.

The Indian-American was the guidance and controls operations lead for the 2020 Mars mission and her voice was heard around the world from mission control at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California in the final minutes as the Perseverance rover landed on Mars on February 18.

“Are you kidding me? What an honour this is,” Biden said when Mohan thanked him for the call.

The US president added, “This is an incredible honour. And it’s amazing. Indian(s) — of descent — Americans are taking over the country. You, my vice-president, my speechwriter, Vinay. I tell you what.”

Biden was referring to Nasa’s Mohan, US vice-president Kamala Harris and the director of the White House speechwriting team, Vinay Reddy, who has been with the American president for years now.

Biden might have mentioned the names of a few more Indian-descent members of his administration — actually more than two dozen. Some of them are: Vivek Murthy, the nominee for surgeon general, a position popularly called America’s doctor; Neera Tanden, the nominee for budget chief, a cabinet post, before she pulled out; and Kiran Ahuja, the head of the civil service.

Biden then invited Mohan to speak, promising to “be quiet” himself.

“So, my path actually started way back when I was a child, watching my first episode of Star Trek,” Mohan said. “In addition to those fantastical scenes of space, what really captured my attention was this really close-knit team who was working together, manipulating this technological marvel with the sole purpose of exploring space and understanding new things and seeking new life.

“You know, Perseverance is my first mission at JPL where I’ve gotten to work from the very beginning of formulation, all the way through operations, and it made me feel like I was part of that crew. Being able to work with this incredibly diverse, talented team that has become like a family, spending years creating our own technological marvel has been a privilege.

“You know, those last days and weeks leading up to landing-day, it was pretty smooth, but we were all still really nervous and, frankly, terrified until we got through those final seven minutes. To be able to call ‘touchdown’ safely, to see those first images come back from Mars, to see the place where we have never been able to go to on Mars before and go there — reach there for the express purpose of seeking out new life just made it feel like I was living in a dream.

“Now that the tremendous relief has passed for the team of being able to be there safely, all that’s left is the excitement and the thrill of all the scientific discoveries that are yet to come and what Perseverance can actually find — and hopefully find those signs of past life on Mars.”

“Touchdown confirmed,” Mohan had said over the public announcement system on February 18 that was heard on live telecast around the world, as mission control JPL erupted in applause, with the personnel leaping to their feet.

She had gone on to say, “Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life.”

With those words, Mohan became an overnight sensation.

Mohan moved to the US with her parents when she was just one, and grew up in the Northern Virginia/ Washington, DC metro area. She graduated from Cornell University in mechanical and aerospace engineering and did her masters and PhD at MIT in aeronautics and astronautics.

Biden said on the Nasa call, “What you did, you restored a dose of confidence in the American people. They were beginning to wonder about us. They were beginning to wonder, are we still the country we always believed we were? You guys did it.”

Biden turned his attention to Mohan, without mentioning her, underscoring his focus on diversity. “One of the reasons why we’re such an incredible country is we’re such a diverse country,” he said.

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