NASA's Mallory Lefland Makes Virtual Visit
Croton-Harmon Graduate Turned NASA Engineer Inspires Students with a Mars Journey
Dare Mighty Things. This motivational statement is not only painted on the wall at NASA headquarters, but held in the heart of the scientists, mathematicians and engineers who work there. For the past two weeks, Mallory Lefland, a systems engineer who was instrumental in the 2020-21 Mars Rover mission and a graduate of Croton-Harmon schools, has shared how daring mighty things allowed her to help land a spacecraft on Mars.
To the delight of hundreds of middle and high students and faculty in the Croton-Harmon Schools, Ms. Lefland returned to her alma-mater via Zoom and took participants through a detailed account of the preparation, trial & error and testing in which she engaged for five years as part of the Mars Perseverance Rover team.
Ms. Lefland explained that her work on the Perseverance Rover started with understanding every aspect and behavior of the 2012 Mars Curiosity Rover. Then she and her co-workers were challenged with identifying aspects that could be improved to best meet the objectives that the scientists had set forth for the mission. They went through over 500 tests, continuously evaluating whether a change that betters one part of the Rover could negatively impact another.
“It took years to understand all of the behaviors of Curiosity and why decisions were made,” said Ms. Lefland. “We inherited that system and the 10-year-old equipment (for Perseverance) and then set out to improve it.
“But one of the most challenging parts of this process was convincing the larger team that our ideas would work and that there wouldn't be any unintended consequences for other parts of the Rover,” she added.
Ms. Lefland reminded those listening to the presentation that Rover was actually launched in July of 2020 - seven and a half months before it touched down on Mars. As launch time approached she said “the team was working 24/7 and that she often had shifts working through the night.”
“Landing is really scary because it is basically hands-off and you just have to hope it works as planned,” explained Ms. Lefland. “You spend years trouble-shooting and hope you have considered every possible scary scenario that can happen.”
As we know, the landing of Mars Perseverance Rover in the Jezero Crater on Feb. 18 was perfect. Now the team waits to see if the Rover can successfully collect samples that can be brought back to Earth.
In reflecting on her experience and career path, which Ms. Lefland dubbed her ‘personal Mars journey', she says she didn’t set out with a goal of working with NASA. After graduating from CHHS, she went to college at Georgia Tech to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering with the hope of making commercial aircrafts more environmentally friendly. But opportunity ultimately led her to NASA.
“Many of my co-workers talk about how they have been obsessed with space exploration since they were children,” she said. “But that wasn’t my origin story; I didn’t plan to end up here. So I want students to know that it’s ok if you don’t know exactly what you want to do. You will find your way.”
Superintendent Deborah O’Connell expressed her gratitude for the incredible example that Ms. Lefland is setting for students, not just as a successful professional but as a citizen of Croton-Harmon who is giving of her time to share her experience.
“Mallory’s presentation and discussion about her work these past five years was incredible and motivating, and I could see how captivated the students were when she was speaking’” said Dr. O'Connell. “On behalf of the district, we are very appreciative that she has been so generous with her time.”
Dr. O’Connell added: “I also think it’s wonderful that, as a former Croton-Harmon student, she
helped normalize for those listening that it is common to be undecided about a future career path and to have the confidence in themselves that they will succeed.”
News about Ms. Lefland’s presentations to students was featured on News12 Westchester on March 22.