UCLA Engineering Alumna Recounts Journey of Perseverance on Mars and Planet Earth
Photo by Trevor Stamp / Contributing Photographer for Long Beach Press-Telegram
Ny Sou Okon at Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Okon and her colleagues couldn’t attend any in-person landing events, however, they were able to hold a virtual NASA livestream viewing party at home to share the excitement of the landing and to continuously monitor the status of the rover remotely.
Unlike most spectators cheering for the successful touchdown, Okon was also preparing to support operations by the rover on Sol 1, the first Martian day.
“Our team had dedicated many years to the making of Perseverance,” Okon said. “It was just a huge moment for all us with lots of strong emotions all around — joy, exhilaration and relief.”
As a flight system engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, Okon spent the last few years working on the Perseverance rover, sharing work — and a home office — with her husband, Avi Okon, ’02, MS ‘05 — a JPL robotics engineer who is also part of the Perseverance mission.
In her role, Okon focuses on two of the rover’s key mechanisms — the High Gain Antenna (HGA) and the Remote Sensing Mast (RSM). The HGA allows for direct communication between Earth and the rover. The RSM acts as the rover’s “head,” and holds several scientific instruments used for exploration, including five cameras that help the rover navigate, take 3D photographs and use lasers to identify the chemical composition of rocks and soils. Both mechanisms support the rover as it looks for signs of current habitability and past microbial life on the red planet — testing out conditions for possible human exploration in the future.
“Two of my happiest work days were being in surface operations to confirm that the HGA and RSM successfully deployed on Mars,” Okon said.
Long before she began working on Perseverance, Okon and her family persevered through extreme adversity by escaping the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime in Cambodia. At age 5, Okon and her parents and two siblings escaped the Khmer Rouge regime on foot, living through conflicts in both Cambodia and Vietnam before fleeing to the U.S. in the mid-1980s. Even after the family settled in the U.S. as refugees, they struggled to learn English, assimilate and make ends meet in the early days.
“Thankfully, I have few memories of those dangerous, tumultuous times, but I have learned a lot through stories my parents and siblings shared with me over the years,” Okon said. “My parents didn’t really have much when we arrived in the U.S. and they worked hard to overcome many challenges to become successful business owners. I think it is my parents’ resilience — willingness to learn, adapt and integrate — as well as their strong work ethic that have helped shape who I am today. I approached school with the same work ethic.”
Not knowing English, her parents decided to settle in Long Beach, California — home to a large Cambodian community — where they eventually managed to start a textile business, working extremely long hours. The family, which by now included five children, enjoyed their new home and thrived. Finally, they were away from chaos of wars, genocide and the subsequent societal breakdown in their previous life.
Okon attended Norwalk High School. In addition to her rigorous academic studies, she was an athlete on the track, cross country and basketball teams. Okon followed UCLA sports attentively with her teammates, and when it came time to apply for college, she got accepted to all her top five choices. She picked UCLA and started out majoring in microbiology.
During her freshman year, working at an immunology lab with postdocs and graduate students, Okon became interested in engineering. “I loved learning about the way things work, and had always been interested in math, physics and science,” Okon said. “What I love about UCLA is that it is a wonderful place for discovery.”
After taking a few engineering courses, Okon applied to the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering toward the end of her third year and was accepted to the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
She credits Naveed Hussain, then an adjunct professor at UCLA who taught “Statics and Dynamics,” for helping inspire and anchor her interest in the aerospace industry. Hussain submitted her resume to managers at Boeing Satellite Systems, where she secured a summer internship before her senior year.
I absolutely loved student life at UCLA. I lived on campus in Sproul Hall and it was just a ton of fun to meet other students and explore.
Okon has many fond memories from her days as a Bruin. “I absolutely loved student life at UCLA. I lived on campus in Sproul Hall and it was just a ton of fun to meet other students and explore. Campus was always exciting as there would always be something going on and if you wanted some quiet, there was plenty of space for quiet and for study,” Okon said.
While living on campus, Okon met Jeffrey Lew, ’81 M.S. ’85, a lecturer in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences who was the Sproul Faculty-in-Residence (FIR), and his wife, Allison Lew, ’02 who were both extremely supportive of her educational, career pursuits and well-being. “I think UCLA’s FIR program is really special as it’s a supportive resource for students adjusting to college life and being on their own,” Okon noted. The Lews mentored her during her undergraduate years and have since became close lifelong friends to her and her family.
Of course, UCLA is also where she met her future husband with whom Okon built robots from scratch and launched the Robotics Club through the UCLA Chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
“We named our first robot ‘Boelter Beast’ after Boelter Hall since we were spending all our time there working on the robot,” she said.
For 15 years following her graduation from UCLA, Okon worked at Boeing and Northrop Grumman before joining NASA. While still an undergraduate at UCLA Samueli, her husband started working at JPL where he continues to work to this date. Eventually she and another student from the original UCLA student robot team joined him at NASA where they worked on the Mars rover together.
“The idea of working on unique, one-of-a-kind projects at JPL really inspired me,” Okon said. “I had an opportunity to work on several different missions including early formulation and concepts for the Mars Sample Return mission. The idea of it sounded so out of this world, literally, that I decided to go for it.”
Working remotely from their home in Pasadena while parenting two young sons — ages 5 and 9 — has its share of challenges, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent school and work closures. However, Okon and her husband have found ways to create a happy, balanced, equitable work and family life. She takes pride in her problem-solving skills as an engineer and as a parent, which involves transitioning from handling high-level engineering tasks to making lunch for the children and helping them with Zoom classes. Her husband helps their eldest son with violin lessons in the evening. Both Okons make every effort to prepare and eat dinner together as a nightly family activity where their children can share what is going on in their lives.
For UCLA students, especially women and other underrepresented Bruins interested in pursuing a career in engineering, Okon thinks they might be pleasantly surprised by how much the industry has started to change.
“Perseverance may have more female engineers and female leaders than any other project I’ve previously worked on,” Okon said.
“This exemplifies JPL and NASA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.”
However, Okon cautioned that a career in engineering is not easy, especially when one wants to balance a family life with advanced education. She recalls the days when she was getting her master’s degree while pregnant and working full-time as an engineer.
“Pursue a career in engineering with curiosity and a desire to contribute to a common mission,” Okon said, “Learn and master the fundamentals, keep learning broadly and deeply, and extend what you’ve learned into solving real-world problems that exist today and will arise in the future.”
Chloe Slayter contributed to this story.