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Cambodian-American helps explore Mars

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Ny Sou Okon escaped the Khmer Rouge and is now a Nasa systems engineer on the Mars Perseverance Rover. Trevor Stamp

Cambodian-American helps explore Mars

The Mars Perseverance Rover was launched on July 30 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and is expected to land on Mars on February 18 next year.

On Mars, it will seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for a possible return to Earth. As of Monday, it reached 56 per cent of its journey to Mars, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).

The Post connected with Ny Sou Okon, a Cambodian-American whose parents survived the Khmer Rouge regime. Ny Sou Okon worked on the Perseverance project.

Your parents survived the Khmer Rouge regime. Can you tell us briefly about their journey to the US?

My parents, two older siblings, and I arrived in the US in the mid-1980s as refugees after having escaped the Khmer Rouge regime. This was a big moment for my family to finally have freedom after surviving the Vietnam War and escaping the Khmer Rouge. While I have few memories of that time, it has been through stories told to me in adulthood that I have come to better understand the lives of many who have experienced war and those who work hard to persevere through challenges no matter the circumstances.

What have they told you about Cambodia?

My parents have shared that Cambodia is a beautiful country and the people are very kind. It was terrible the Khmer Rouge destroyed so much of the country and the people. My parents have fond memories of the idyllic years before the Khmer Rouge regime took over.

Have you visited Cambodia?

I have not yet had the opportunity to visit Cambodia but would love to visit one day. A number of my friends have visited and have shared positive thoughts and stories about their visits and the beautiful temples such as Angkor Wat and the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ (Ta Prohm).

Cambodian people are proud to see you with Nasa. How did you come to be a part of Nasa?

Thank you. I have a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and a master’s degree in Astronautical Engineering from USC (University of Southern California).

I started an internship at Boeing while I was an undergraduate student, and since then continued to work in the private sector. I built a career working in the private industry in the aerospace field. After about 15 years in the private sector, I wanted to work on exciting space exploration missions at Nasa’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory). To get to work for Nasa and on the Mars Perseverance Rover is a dream.

What do you do at Nasa? What is your next plan?

I am a Systems Engineer at JPL. I make sure that several parts on the rover rotate and point the way they should. The rover has a mast – its head, basically – and a high-gain antenna that receives commands from Earth. Both mechanisms have to rotate and point in different directions. The mast points its navigation cameras so that the rover and engineers can see the path ahead and the workspace in front of the rover.

The mast also points its instruments so that scientists can explore Mars. The antenna has to be pointed at where Earth is in the sky for us to communicate directly with the rover.

Concerning my next plan, I am staying open-minded – anything is possible. I’d love to continue working on Mars missions or other projects exploring celestial objects.

Do you wish to share your experiences or teach Cambodian students about technology?

I think it would be nice to help inspire Cambodian youths on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). I think travel and being away from my family will be very challenging at this time, but I hope that my story and my work on the Mars Perseverance Rover will help inspire young people to pursue careers in STEM.

If the opportunity presents itself in the future, it would be possible to find creative ways to inspire youths through talks on science and engineering.

What do you have to say to the Cambodian people?

My work on the Mars Perseverance Rover has given me a greater appreciation on collaboration and what it takes to accomplish a challenging task. We all have different strengths and talents and when we collectively harvest all of those things to collaborate and work hard, we make nearly impossible missions a reality. Work hard, study math and science, be kind, dream big.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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