Quebec aerospace engineer Farah Alibay almost didn't apply for NASA's Mars 2020 mission because she doubted her skills, she says in her autobiography My Martian Year.
“We forget all the work behind the successes, all the failures, all the doubts. That's what I wanted to show […] The preparation, the stress, the uncertainties and after, the successes. The public only saw the successes,” she told the Journal, sipping a cinnamon-scented coffee.
Energetic and passionate as always, she is in Montreal to promote her book My Martian Year which will be released on September 28.
The Quebec engineer of Hindu-Malagasy origin says she was surprised when her editor approached her to write about the journey that led her to the controls of the Perseverance rover in February 2021.
Modest, the 34-year-old woman thought she was young for an autobiography.
But she decided to take the opportunity to show the other side of the coin and remind us that an ordinary “little girl from Joliette” , gifted in mathematics, but rotten in physical education, must dare to dream.
Because behind her many exploits – including the very first coordinated flight on another planet – she reveals the doubts, the questionings and the strong impostor syndrome that have dotted her career as the daughter of immigrants and as a woman engineer.
So much so that Farah Alibay almost did not apply to the English university Cambridge, then for the Mars 2020 mission.
Representing the difference
“Let them tell you no, don't withdraw from the competition just because you think you won't succeed”, a professor had told him in the face of his hesitation to apply to the prestigious university.< /p>
But what convinced her above all to start writing was the possibility of becoming the model she would have liked to have at each stage of her life: for little Farah, a victim of racism in primary school, for the teenage girl living with low self-confidence, and for the passionate academic looking for her place in a predominantly monochromatic and masculine field.
“That's what I missed when I was young: role models who look like me, women in science. I want to offer a different model, she says. I would have liked to see people who doubt themselves, who talk about microaggressions at work. »
“We must change the world for the next generations, and it is possible”, she insists.
Inspiring and inspired< /p>
“Fierce feminist”, as she describes herself between the pages, she makes it a point of honor to include a few lines on each woman who has inspired her journey.
“It's a way of discovering people who were important, formative for me while I was growing up. It's important to recognize those who have paved the way,” she said, with a big smile on her face.
The book, filled with anecdotes and photos, recounts her beginnings as an engineer, since her early childhood when she couldn't resist taking apart her little alarm clock with a screwdriver to understand how it works.
Even though she is no longer working on the Perseverance missionsince the beginning of the summer, she can't stop thinking about her robot whenever Mars is visible.
“You realize when you see Mars, a small dot in the sky, that your robots are over there. It's so far! she exclaims.
While waiting to apply for future Mars missions, Farah Alibay will work on SphereX, a telescope that will orbit the Earth to take infrared maps of the sky.
In the meantime, she continues to think big, not putting aside her dream of visiting space.
“It's good to dream. I've always said that I'll retire the day I stop learning, but I'm not sure that's going to happen in the end, she continues laughing. That's what I like: the challenge, the learning. »
“In that NASA [Apollo 13 mission] control room, not one of the engineers looked like me, none lived in my reality. When you're young and you're not represented in a milieu, you don't even have the audacity to dream about it” –Farah Alibay, in My Martian Year
Des excerpts from the bubbly engineer's book
The aerospace specialist opens up about her journey, her challenges, her successes and her failures.
In her autobiography, Farah Alibay takes the reader through her exciting adventure, making them experience with her the range of emotions that have accompanied her along the way. From her doubts and her discouragement, to the point of wanting to give up everything at university, to her cries of joy when she heard “touchdown confirmed“, she shares her joys, her challenges and her failures. . Here are some excerpts from My Martian Year.
An Unexpected Call
Farah Alibay celebrates the first flight of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars on April 19, 2021 with a model.
Less than a month after the launch of the mission to Mars […] my phone rang. He was one of my team leaders. “Oh no, there's a problem,” I thought. To my surprise, his voice was cheerful and calm: “I would like to propose something to you…” Without waiting for my answer, he continued: “As you know, there is a small helicopter attached under the belly of Perseverance.” The team is amazing, but they don't have a lot of experience in Mars operations. Members also need someone who understands the rover and who can coordinate the interactions between the two vehicles. Would you like to help them? I didn't hesitate for a second or even think about asking what my role would be exactly. I immediately said yes […]
Not only did I have to plan all these operations, but also understand the intricacies of the two missions, and all this in just eight months. I couldn't just consult books to try to study how it all works, since that had never been done before.
Living on Mars hours
Farah Alibay in front of a model of the InSight lander, the day before it arrived on Mars.
[I] quickly learned that at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, the grocery stores are closed, and no one will come to deliver a meal to you, even in Los Angeles! This period of Martian shift left me with several tasty anecdotes, but here is my favorite. One morning around 7 a.m. (it was the end of the day for me), my boyfriend woke up to find me sitting on the sofa eating lasagna and drinking a glass of wine while watching the TV after a very long (Martian) day at work. Surprised, he asked me, “Farah… how are you?” To which I replied: “Well yes! It's evening for me! Do you want a drink?
The morning Perseverance landed
It was on her patio in California that Farah Alibay celebrated the launch of the Mars 2020 mission.
That morning, I woke up at 5 a.m. after a few hours of nervous sleep. Fifteen minutes of makeup, a brush in the hair, and voila, I was on Skype, live on TV and radio across North America, to share our excitement and excitement.
The questions, in French or in English, were often the same: “What is the mission of Perseverance? “Do you really think there is life on Mars? “How long did it take to build the rover? »
Normally, I love to share the details of my work, but that morning I was nervous and eager to finish this media tour. Every time I answered a question, a little voice in my head said to me: “Yeah, but wait, we still have to manage to land, and that is not won! »
Communicating with Perseverance
Farah Alibay in the lab where the MarCO satellites were built.
Learning to communicate with a robot is like speaking a new language with someone who only knows this one. In addition, the robot only executes if it is addressed in perfectly accurate grammar. He tolerates no mistakes or the slightest ambiguity. A long practice is necessary to get there! In the end, the test lasted almost 12 hours and was a great success. Although I was very tired towards the end of the day, I kept running to the window to watch the robot's every move after each command was transmitted, mesmerized by what I was seeing.
In September 1992, on his first day of kindergarten in front of his house in Joliette.
In preschool, during a trip to town, a lady who did not know me stopped me on the bus to ask me where I was from. As I have always felt like a Quebecer, I did not immediately understand his question. She repeated: “Where were you born? “Ah! That, 4-year-old Farah knew. ” To Montreal ! I replied, proud of myself. Surprised, she insisted: “No, no, you are brunette, where are you from? The rest of the story, I can't remember, but I know it was the first time in my life when I realized that, even though I was born in Quebec, I spoke French and I I had a Canadian passport, I was different.
Very close to dropping out of university
After nearly dropping everything, the aerospace engineer graduated from Cambridge in 2010.
In order to prepare first-year students […], Trinity gives them practice exams when they return from vacation of Christmas. This acts as a barometer to assess their knowledge and shortcomings. In my case, these exams would show me how hard I had to work to catch up. Yes, I failed all those tests miserably.
I remember reading the questions and thinking: have they really taught us this in the last few months? Where was I? Is Cambridge a place for me? It was the first big failure that could affect my future career and my dream, and I didn't know how to handle defeat.
I almost left Cambridge, I felt defeated .
“A man's domain”
In 2009, Farah Alibay had the chance to work during a parabolic flight, which is used to train astronauts, reproducing low gravity.
When I was 17, when I told the orienteer that I wanted to become an aerospace engineer (it was indeed the right job for me, according to a questionnaire that we had been given!), I received a unexpected response. She told me that, given my high grades, I should rather go to medicine, that engineering was a field for men and that I would find it difficult to break into this environment where there was no not many “people like me”. In short, it was better for me to consider charting a slightly easier path.
Put yourself for a moment in the shoes of this 17-year-old teenager who dares to aspire to an unconventional profession for a woman , but who hears that she will surely not succeed because she is not the right sex.
Young Farah Alibay and her brother with their maternal grandparents.
Finally, my mother's family is extremely proud to be Canadian, more specifically to be Quebecois.
She will always be grateful for the prospects that our move to Canada has opened up for us. My brother and I are first generation Quebecers and were encouraged to integrate as best we could into Canadian culture.
Back home, Canadiens game nights are still sacred, and Montreal bagels and poutines have their place on the table alongside the curries. For me, even though I have lived all over the world, Quebec remains the place “where I come from”, and getting off the plane at the Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau airport is always like returning to home.
A lifelong engineer
When she was young, Farah Alibay always had her nose buried in a book.
[I] began not only to devour books (the internet did not exist at that time!) on all kinds of subjects, but also to ask questions, to discuss and to tinker to better understand the functioning of the things. For example, on my bedside table was a little purple, battery-operated alarm clock that I loved. I absolutely wanted to know HOW this device could measure time without getting lost and why its hands had slowed down a bit lately. Using a small spectacle screwdriver, I opened and disassembled this alarm clock to discover the gear system.
I think the alarm never worked properly afterwards, but at least I had satisfied my curiosity!
Head in the stars
My little brother was also fascinated by space and, at the age of 6, he dreamed of being an astronaut. His dream was unfortunately extinguished, as if absorbed by a black hole, when we watched the movie Apollo 13 with our parents. My brother was so scared for the astronauts that the film had to be pushed to the end to show him that they had survived. Then we were able to finish the film. Still, my brother never wanted to be an astronaut again. “It's far too dangerous”, he told us.
Me, on the other hand, I was passionate about this film.
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Katrine Johns has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Gal Post, Katrine Johns worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my firstname.lastname@example.org 1-800-268-7128