Who is Farah Alibay, the Franco-Quebecois landlady who pilots the Perseverance robot sent to Mars?

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Farah Alibay est aux commandes de Persévérance sur Mars, depuis Pasadena, le labo californien de la Nasa.

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In California, it is 5:45 am. Farah Alibay checks her phone: “On Mars, it is 12:47!, she says with infectious enthusiasm – even on Zoom. Jhave an app that tells me exactly what time it is for Perseverance. That means I have about six hours of work left before I go to bed. In fact, I telecommute on Mars! “” Since February 18, the daily life of this aerospace engineer from NASA has been completely turned upside down. That day, around 10 p.m. (Paris time), after entering the Martian atmosphere at more than 20,000 km / h, the robot called Perseverance, whose parts she assembled, managed to land on the crater. Jezero, the riskiest area ever attempted on the Red Planet. Now, every day, this highly technological mini-four-four walks around and explores the surface. When it is on standby, hundreds of millions of kilometers away, the earthlings are busy. Among them, the Franco-Québécoise, Farah Alibay.

“Tomorrow the alarm clock will ring rather around 8 pm”

During the Martian nights, with all his team from Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), it receives, compiles and analyzes the data collected by Persévérance the day before. Then these operational engineers send all the orders for the next day. “We work from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. March time, explains Farah who is responsible for plotting the daily routes of the rover. We try not to work days longer than twelve hours. But that changes every day because a Martian day lasts 40 minutes longer than on Earth. For example, this morning I got up a little after 7 pm, tomorrow the alarm clock will ring more like 8 pm. “” This sustained and shifted pace will be hers for a little less than three months – the time to learn the robot.

In post for six years in this research laboratory on jet propulsion, this is not the first time that she has witnessed the first steps of an automaton on Mars. In 2012, when Curiosity, a distant relative of Perseverance, set foot on Martian soil, Farah was on an internship. Then, she worked on another Martian InSight mission, sent in 2018. Each time, her wonder is renewed. “It is an honor to participate in this great extraterrestrial operation. What we are doing is historic! “

Farah Alibay in the sandbox called

Farah Alibay in the sandbox called “Champs de Mars” in the United States during life-size tests at the end of 2020.DR

“I fell in love! “

For her, it was a childhood dream. At 10, Farah discovered the film Apollo 13. Facing the small screen, she is captivated by the cosmos and the astronauts – obviously! But also by the work of the teams on the ground. “Seeing all these engineers doing something so big together totally fascinated me”, she remembers. At 13, she moved from her native Quebec to England because her father, himself an engineer, was transferred there. Gifted in maths and physics, she joined the prestigious University of Cambridge in the field of aeronautics, “At the time there was no branch in the space sector”, she punctuates.

Few of the girls embark on such courses. “It was not easy to be surrounded by boys and people more privileged than me”remembers Farah, whose parents are of Malagasy origin. But she hung on. It was finally during an exchange across the Atlantic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that she “Finds its place” within the aerospace department. “I fell in love! “, loose the young woman whose mother tongue is Quebec. Logically – and brilliantly – she goes on to pursue a doctorate on the spot. Immediately after his thesis on “The exploration of other planets” framed by an astronaut, she enters NASA.

“At least people remember me! “

However, it took a long time for her to convince herself that she could do it. “I had never seen people who did what I wanted to do and who looked like me. And then when you’re young, you want to be like everyone else ”, she confides. Growing up, Farah adopted a different look. She made her difference an advantage. “At least people remember me! It is certain that a Francophone woman with brown skin and red hair does not run through the corridors of NASA “, smiles the one who is part of the 30% of systems engineers, very technical and very masculine sectors.

Without procrastinating, Farah calls herself a feminist. “To be a feminist is to be for equality, she emphasizes. Everyone should be! “ Within the American space agency, it has also made a double hat. In parallel with “His job” – to use the Quebec expression we love to hear – she sits on the inclusion and diversity committee. Being a model does not seem to tire her, but on the contrary, to motivate her. Outside of NASA, the young woman is very committed to the LGBT community and to the younger generations. She is notably godmother in the program “Big Brothers Big Sisters of America”.

Farah Alibay, happy and relieved, the day InSight arrived on Mars in 2018.

Farah Alibay, happy and relieved, the day InSight arrived on Mars in 2018.DR

All it takes is a “yes”

In his personal and professional commitments, the plural prevails over the singular. “The Perseverance mission is the fruit of thousands of talents, no one could carry out this project alone. Together, we are able to create something bigger than ourselves, she rejoices. There is always someone there to help or to answer a question. It’s real teamwork! “ Yet with the pandemic, Farah and his teammates have been strained. The seven-month journey of Perseverance from Earth to Mars was “The longest of his life”. “We couldn’t see each other physically, we were all confined to our homes, it added to the stress because to ‘amarssir’ [atterrir sur Mars, NDRL] there is only a small window for shooting, so don’t miss it. “ In the end, according to her, it is the rapid adaptation of the group that is one of her greatest pride. But he is longing, like everyone else, to return to “Normal life”.

When asked why not have joined the European Space Agency (ESA) of which its two countries of nationality – Canada and London – belong, Farah answers, herself a little surprised: “It’s because I finished my studies in the United States and stayed there. But it’s pretty crazy because my whole family lives in Paris, and my parents live in Colmar. “ Moreover, she is quick to remind that the call for applications from ESA will open and that she will try her luck again. She has already tried without success, but as she likes to repeat to erase the multiples ” no “, just one ” Yes “.

LANDMARKS

Name and Surname: Alibay Farah

Age: 32 years old

Education: Masters at Cambridge, followed by a PhD in Systems Engineering at MIT

Profession: Aerospace engineer at NASA for six years.

Nationality: Franco-Quebecois, she was born in Montreal and raised in Joliette, Quebec. His family now lives in London.

Place of work: Pasadena, a research center managed by NASA based in California.

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