Heating up: Dr. Helen Hwang on the final frontier

A NASA heat shield designer gets curious in a Newswire exclusive interview

By Avery Strychasz, Guest Writer
Photo courtesy of nasa.gov
Dr. Helen Hwang (above) served as a lead designer in the recent Perseverance rover’s heat shields, preventing the rover from burning at incredibly high velocities. The latest Mars rover was a success, landing on the red planet without difficulties, but Hwang admits she was “incredibly nervous.”

Whether as a kid or as an adult, we have all dreamed of space. It is biological for us to be curious and question what we know little about. This same curiosity led Dr. Helen Hwang to become a heat shield designer for NASA.

Hwang, Project Manager for Heat Shields at NASA, gave an exclusive interview to Newswire to discuss how this curiosity still impacts her daily life. Having been a part of three missions to Mars, her latest success — the 2020 Perseverance rover — has been eight years in the making. 

Heat shields are vital to a successful mission, Hwang emphasized. When a spacecraft enters an atmosphere at high velocities, it generates massive amounts of heat that could contribute to internal failure or incineration. The role of a heat shield is to deflect this excess heat away from the spacecraft and protect the internal structure. 

Eighteen months before the launch of the 2011 Mars rover, the Curiosity, Hwang discovered a “heart-stopping” problem. After doing extensive testing, they discovered that the material being used in the Curiosity’s heat shield was vanishing under pressure. Considering the team was at risk of delaying the whole mission if they couldn’t stay on schedule, they were at a loss.  

Luckily, they were able to collaborate with the team  working on the Artemis lunar project to find materials that would withstand entry into Mars’ atmosphere. They took these failures and used them to evolve the design for their next project: the 2020 Perseverance.  

“This time around we knew we had a design, but we had to make sure that it was going to be capable for this new opportunity on Mars,” Hwang said.  

Considering that the Perseverance entered the Martian atmosphere at a top speed of 12,000 miles per hour, it was imperative for Hwang to be meticulous in every single calculation. 

Nearly six months after its July 30 launch, the Perseverance landed on the red planet on Feb. 18. Hwang was still “incredibly nervous” for the landing even though she is considered a veteran in her field. 

“I knew they were going to have a successful landing… but sometimes you just have a bad day (on) Mars,” Hwang said. 

The Perseverance is the third installment of the Mars exploration program. The rover will collect data, images and most importantly samples from the red planet to search for any archaic life forms Mars may have supported.

There are still two more missions planned for Mars, both of which will utilize some form of Hwang’s heat shield technology. In 2022, NASA will launch a specimen-collection rover that will collect the samples from the Perseverance and also bring them back to Earth. 

Dr. Hwang is not willing to give up after completing the Mars missions. 

“I think about the scope of our solar system, and how much more there is to explore and learn and that’s what gets me so excited every time,” Hwang said. 

One of the advantages to working for NASA is that every day brings new challenges and questions for a scientist to consider. Hwang sees these questions and applies them beyond Mars to her “dream destinations,” such as Venus, Uranus and Titan. 

But for Hwang, each and every destination is worth pursuing, as it helps to fill the insatiable curiosity of a determined NASA scientist in an ever-expanding universe.