AFIT alum Zainab Nagin Cox (M.S. Space Operations, 1990) is feautred in the article below from The International News.
Women should contribute to socio-economic development of Pakistan, says NASA engineer
by Afshan S. Khan
Thursday, May 22, 2014
Zainab Nagin Cox, an engineer associated with the Mars Curiosity Rover project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is on a visit to Pakistan on the invitation of US Embassy. She is currently working on Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Previously, she had served as the assistant flight system engineering manager. Now she is a part of the mission operations team operating the Rover on Mars.
She has spoken to audiences around the United States, in Europe, and the Middle East on the stories of the people behind the robotic space missions.
‘The News’ got a chance to talk to her exclusively about her ‘Speaker Programme,’ which would focus on engaging students at the school, college and university level. She will also address a wide variety of audiences on NASA and space exploration, as well as the empowerment of women and girls. The ‘Speaker Programme’ would include space exploration; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education; and empowering women and girls.
After visiting universities in Islamabad like the Institute of Space Technology, International Islamic University, Quaid-i-Azam University, Fatima Jinnah Women University, Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission and the National University of Sciences and Technology, she will proceed to Karachi. She will also visit colleges for girls in Islamabad. She will remain in Pakistan till June 3.
Talking about her early education and career, Zainab Nagin Cox said that she was born in South Asia. After moving to the United States, she graduated from Cornell University with a BS in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering and a BA in Psychology and was commissioned as an officer in the US Air Force. As a lieutenant, she was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and worked as a systems engineer in aircrew training. Then she attended the Air Force Institute of Technology where she received a Master’s degree in Space Operations Systems Engineering.
After leaving the Air Force to pursue more civilian space applications, she joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1993 and began her time on planetary missions working in outer solar system projects. She served as the deputy team chief of the engineering spacecraft flight team for NASA/JPL’s Galileo mission to Jupiter until February of 2000. She then moved to inner solar system exploration as the deputy team chief of the Spacecraft/Rover Engineering Flight Team on the JPL Mars Exploration Rover Missions. Next she spent two years in extra-solar exploration as the deputy project system engineer on the Kepler telescope mission to search for earth-like planets around other stars and then became the supervisor for the Surface Systems-Systems Engineering Group at JPL. She returned to Mars Exploration and led a proposed Mars lander mission that was successfully selected as a finalist for the 2016 mission opportunity.
Zainab Nagin Cox said that the Mars Exploration Rover mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Programme, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. Primary among the mission’s scientific goals is to search for and characterise a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars. The spacecraft are targeted to sites on opposite sides of Mars that appear to have been affected by liquid water in the past.
“We want to know whether there was any water activity on Mars in the past by studying the rocks and the soil collected by the robot. It’s been two years since Rover has been on Mars and we want to know whether it was ever habitable. The breakthrough is this that in earlier missions it was discovered that the water was drinkable. Now that the Rover has landed in the crater it is collecting samples from the crater that is even taller than the Mount Everest,” she said.
Another interesting thing, she said, is the presence of oceans on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. That is why more and more nations are interested in these exploration missions in which many countries, including India. They are sending combined missions to Jupiter. They are also sending orbiters circulating the Mars.
Zainab Nagin Cox said that she grew up in Kansas in a Muslim family where her brothers were given more opportunities and resources to study. When she was fourteen, she had an interest in space technology and then she pursued her interest. She received scholarship in the US Air Force and then there was no looking back. She always had a dream to go to the NASA but she was not interested in becoming an astronaut. “Before astronauts go into space, the robotic explorations are send and we are the engineers working behind them. Rover is nuclear powered and gets its energy from Plutonium. After the mission is completed, the robots remain there and new exploration missions are sent. Other robots like Opportunity and Spirit are already there and its been a decade that they are based there,” she said.
She said that acquiring knowledge is not enough. “In Pakistan, more than half of its population is women, and most of them are not using their education. It is understandable that it’s a cultural choice, but if we see this ratio with the other countries of the world, the skilled women have made remarkable achievements. The Pakistani women must come forward and contribute to the socio-economic development of the country. Pakistan needs their women. There is so much room in the space technology where students after studying Electrical Engineering, Aero Space Engineering, Geophysics and Planetary Sciences can do so much better for their country. Pakistan has a beautiful terrain with unique features. It can be explored by its young professionals. There are many Pakistani students who are getting technical degrees at the University of Kansas,” she said.
Zainab Nagin Cox was of the view that the Pakistani girls should pursue their education and ask themselves what interests them. Women should encourage equally their sons and daughters to become the citizens of the world. One should devote their precious time to the country and become a part of the legacy to serve the country and they should think about working for a while, before settling down.
Zainab is fortunate to have a very cooperative husband who is also a technical engineer working on alternative energy. They both were lucky to find what they were passionate about.
On a lighter note, Zainab revealed that she’s fond of South Asian food and ‘saag’ is one of her favourite dishes.