2021-02-20 by W.M.
From Montreal to mission control: Quebecers cheering on Farah Alibay as she steers Mars rover
One of Montreal’s own is making her mark not just in Canada, or in the U.S. — or even on Planet Earth.
On Thursday, Farah Alibay helped make history on another planet as part of the group at NASA’s mission control centre helping to land the Mars rover.
Not that it was easy to get there, says the 33-year-old, and she’s not only talking about the delicate process of maneuvering the rover through the Martian atmosphere — “seven minutes of terror,” as she calls it — to land safely on the Red Planet.
“It was incredible,” Alibay told CTV News about the moment of landing. “I was freaking out.”
As it landed, she “heard those magical words, ‘touchdown,’ ‘confirm,'” she recalled a day later.
“And everyone jumped up, you know, jumping, screaming, crying, everything. And it’s… years of work for an enormous team.”
She wasn’t exaggerating — a video of the moment, which she later posted to Twitter, showed her jumping up and down and pumping her arms in the air.
Alibay will now lead the planning team that will steer the rover on Mars’s surface, collecting samples and images that are expected to open up a world of new knowledge about the planet.
The rover is named Perseverance, and the name could be applied to Alibay, too, who breaks the mold in her field in a few ways, down to her bright dyed hair.
“Growing up, there weren’t a lot of people that look like me in aerospace. And in fact, I never really thought that I belonged here,” she said.
“If you looked at the movies, back then it was mostly white men who worked at NASA or in these big positions.”
Born in Montreal, she moved with her family to nearby Joliette, where she lived until she was 13. Then they moved to the U.K.
She excelled in science and joined NASA in 2014. But even then, it took a while to really hit her stride, she said.
“When I started, I was never really sure that I had a seat at the table, that I could truly be myself. But eventually, I did take that seat, I did find that confidence,” she said.
“I had allies along the way… and you know, [now] I have this incredible dream job.”
On Thursday, as Alibay battled her nerves and went through the closely orchestrated landing process, plenty of Quebecers were aware that one of their own was in the control room. Some parents tweeted to her that they were watching the landing with their kids.
One teacher in Quebec City said she had her fourth-grade students study the mission ahead of time, along with Alibay herself, and they settled in to watch the landing as a class.
It was a great chance to show them someone who doesn’t quite fit the mold and is achieving great things, while being from their home province to boot, said teacher Myra Auvergnat.
“I like when you can show models to girls and boys,” she told CTV.
“With her red hair… she looks like someone who’s not necessarily in science.”
Alibay said she loves the thought that kids might take that message from watching, and she said she often speaks to classes of children.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from, or what colour your hair is,” she said. “As long as you do your best, there should always be a place for you.”
Alibay also knows that many in Quebec are proud. After seeing a video of a motion in the National Assembly to congratulate her on Thursday, introduced by Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-François Blanchet, she politely thanked the province’s politicians on Friday, in their official language.
Alibay’s work on Mars is really just beginning: “For the next few days, it’s my job to figure out where we are, how we’re oriented, and how we need to orient ourselves to be able to talk back to the earth,” she explained.
Driving the rover isn’t easy, since it takes at least half an hour for it to receive instructions from Earth. All the moves are carefully programmed the night before — but even what counts as “night” isn’t simple.
“For example, today, I’m going in at 1 p.m. to work,” she explained Friday.
“The reason why, it’s special, is because a Martian day is 24 hours and 39 minutes — that means that it’s a little bit longer than an Earth day, and my days shift by 40 minutes a day,” she said.
She’ll be jet-lagged by 40 minutes a day, and will also be in charge of coordinating a tiny helicopter that will be flying around on the mission. it’ll be the first human demonstration of powered flight on another planet, and one day that experience could even help humans on Mars in a future exploration.
But aside from that history-making work, she said she’ll keep visiting classrooms and telling the story of getting to the mission control room all the way from Montreal.
“I have achieved where I want to be,” she said. “Now it’s my time to help others get that, too.”