From Myanmar to NASA, Burmese woman breaks barrier over Mars

NASA Project manager MiMi Aung, at left. The Mars Ingenuity helicopter, at right. Photos: JPL/NASA
NASA Project manager MiMi Aung, at left. The Mars Ingenuity helicopter, at right. Photos: JPL/NASA

For the first time, humanity sent something flying above another world yesterday, a moment beamed back to the Earth from Mars by NASA’s Perseverance Rover.

And leading the team behind that historic feat was Burmese-American engineer MiMi Aung, the Mars Ingenuity helicopter project manager who has worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for 31 years.

“We can say human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” MiMi Aung said following the Monday’s successful flight, after which she tore up her “mission failure” speech in a meme-worthy moment.

MiMi Aung followed her parents’ footsteps into science and earned a master’s degree in electronic engineering. Her mother, Hla Hla Sein, was the first Burmese woman to earn a doctoral degree in mathematics at a U.S. university; her father held one in chemistry.

Her parents met while pursuing their doctorates in the U.S. state of Illinois, where MiMi Aung was later born before moving to Myanmar when she was 18 months old. She could not be reached for comment for this story.

She attended Basic Education Schools until she was 11, after which she went to study at St. Christopher’s School in Malaysia prior to returning to the United States at the 16 to pursue higher education. She earned a master’s degree in science at the University of Illinois.

Upon joining the lab in 1990, Mi Mi Aung worked in its Deep Space Network program, which manages NASA spaceflight communication sites around the world. In 2013 she took a leadership role over its Autonomous Systems Division, and was promoted to head the Mars helicopter project in 2015.

On Monday, Ingenuity lifted off and hovered for several moments off the ground before landing again. It got to the planet piggybacked aboard the Perseverance rover, and became the first vehicle to attain flight above another planet. 

Nothing could be found regarding MiMi Aung’s thoughts on the turmoil in her homeland – but it’s conceivable that she’s been preoccupied with getting everything right for the climax of her historic six-year mission, which comes weeks after the military staged a coup d’etat.

Still, like the vehicle which carried her project to the red planet, she says she got to where she is today as a woman in science thanks to perseverance.

“You have to go for it and don’t second-guess, and don’t let anyone talk you out of it,” she told reporters was her advice for youth, particularly young girls, interested in science.

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