While growing in Rego Park, Queens, Vishnu Sridhar was awed at the airplanes that would take off from nearby LaGuardia airport.

As a high-school student, he sent a weather balloon up 100,000 feet and got a taste of the vastness of space—so much left unexplored, unseen by human eyes. His grandfather, a civil engineer who built trains and dams in India, also inspired him.

Now the 27-year-old is the lead systems engineer for the SuperCam on the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance—anticipated to land Thursday afternoon after traversing nearly 300 million miles to the Red Planet. The SuperCam is an instrument designed to scan rocks and minerals—from up to 20 feet away—to determine their chemical makeup. It will allow the rover to analyze parts of the terrain that it may not be able to physically reach.

If all goes well, touchdown time on the Red Planet is slated for 3:55 p.m. ET on Thursday. The rover, the SuperCam, and its other devices will help scientists search for clues of past life on Mars. The craft will land in the Jezero Crater—where NASA says a body of water the size Lake Tahoe once was located 3.5 billion years ago. The crater may hold evidence of organic molecules or other signs of life from the ancient, dried-up lake bed.

A successful landing is a key challenge for the Perseverance team with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). NASA says just half of Martian landings undertaken by any space agency are successful. The Martian atmosphere is so thin that parachutes and other forms of crash prevention don’t work well. The rover has been en route to the planet since last summer, when it launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Gothamist spoke with Sridhar about his work and how he got interested in space as a kid growing up in Queens. Here’s what he had to say:

Were you always interested in space as a kid? How did you get interested in engineering?

Growing up, I was always fascinated by airplanes living close to two giant airports like LaGuardia and JFK, and I just naturally liked science fiction and technology growing up. And I also loved and enjoyed building things.

One of the key events that sparked my interest in space and exploration was watching National Geographic. The Carl Sagan TV show Cosmos, too—that really sparked my interest in human exploration and exploring our solar system.

I was also attracted to engineering and the STEM field because of my grandfather. He was a civil engineer in India. He built the second largest dam in India, and he has built trains that are still operational. Unlike him, I didn't want to work on stuff that's beneath our atmosphere. I kind of wanted to be different, so I started pursuing aerospace engineering.

Was there a particular turning point?

One of our high school projects involved sending a weather balloon up to about 100,000 feet. I put in a couple instruments—an altitude pressure sensor, and a camera. It was so high that you could see the curvature of the Earth and the darkness of space. That really opened my eyes and connecting the dots with the science TV shows from my youth made me interested in pursuing and following NASA missions.

So back to this week’s landing. What is this mission’s goal?

Perseverance is not NASA JPL’s first rover on Mars. But it has a unique goal, unlike the previous missions.

What we're trying to achieve with Perseverance is seeking signs of ancient life on Mars. We have new instruments and technology that are going to explore rocks and samples on Mars to look for bio-signatures. This basically is going to tell us more about our solar system and the habitability of past life in our solar system.

It's really understanding and answering the fundamental question: Was there life outside Earth?

That’s cool. What else?

We're going to also be sending a buddy with it called Ingenuity, which is going to be the first rotorcraft [helicopter] on another planet. That's going to be really exciting.

We have another instrument called MOXIE, which is this little piece of technology that's going to use the Martian atmosphere to produce oxygen. That's a tech demo that's going to pave our way into the future for human space explorers.

And just so everyone knows. When you say life on Mars, what do you really mean by that?

When I say we're looking for life on Mars, we're certainly not looking for little green men or Martians or aliens. We're looking for substances or chemical patterns that only life based-processes can create. These are certain minerals, organic compounds. They’re hints, ones for proving that there was microbial life on Mars at some point.

An image taken at the Spacecraft Assembly Facility's High Bay 1 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on July 23rd 2019. The image shows a close-up of the head of Mars 2020's remote sensing mast, which contains the SuperCam instrument. The large circular opening is the lens.

You’re the lead systems engineer for the SuperCam instrument. I know that’s more complicated than taking photographs of the planet. What do you do?

SuperCam has a microscopic-level camera that can take minute, high-resolution images of rocks that the geologists on Earth can analyze and study. But it also has built in lasers and spectrometers [for chemical analysis].

When it fires its laser, it can basically detect the chemical composition and the mineral makeup of the different rocks. And it’s scanning the rocks in fine detail—each point is as small as the tip of a pencil. It can look at samples that are 20 feet away.

There was a lot of testing involved and development over the last three years. It's very exciting and also [makes me feel] a little bit anxious to see all of that going to happen on the 18th.

Summer 2019 was when instruments came in from France and Los Alamos and when we physically integrated SuperCam with the Perseverance rover. That's something I will cherish for the rest of my life...to have touched and worked on a piece of hardware that's on its way to Mars.

This landing is about to happen as life is really turbulent on Earth right now. There’s a pandemic and questions about the stability of our country’s democracy.


Why do these missions still matter and why are they still important during these times?

As humans, we always seek to explore and increase our knowledge base and understand who we are and how we evolved and how our solar system is evolving. With Perseverance launching and landing on the 18th, we're really going to answer key scientific questions and create discoveries that thousands of scientists are going to explore for decades to come.

Young people seeking to be scientists or engineers right now—from kids to college students—are really struggling right now. There is a mental health crisis with the uncertainty the pandemic has brought with it. What would you tell them during this time?

I would start off by saying to work hard and have passion for what you're doing, definitely. But also, for those who are not into science and math and physics, even if it's not your thing, really do try to follow NASA. Definitely try to follow the events that are happening in the NASA world and space and technology exploration.

We have a pandemic going on. It's a difficult time. The sort of stuff that's happening with Mars rover landing, it really allows us to take a step back to reflect on human achievements and what's left to explore in the future.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. For more information on how to watch the landing, head to NASA.