Punahou graduate part of NASA’s Mars ‘Perseverance’ team

Local News

HONOLULU (KHON2) — NASA’s successful landing of the ‘Perseverance’ rover on Mars on Thursday, Feb. 18, was a day that Christopher Pong will never forget.

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“It was a very emotional moment,” said Pong, a Guidance and Control Engineer. “I got teary-eyed and it was just such a huge relief that we made it there successfully.”

Pong was among the many engineers in the mission control room, meaning he was partly responsible for getting the rover to the red planet safely.

“We need to make sure that we’re controlling the spacecraft from that point, up until EDL — meaning entry, descent and landing — on Mars,” Pong said about his job on the day of the Mars landing.

Pong said, the day was nerve-wracking since his past four and a half years of work all came down to that moment.

“Especially the last 10 minutes, the seven minutes of terror. There’s just very little you can do. There’s zero control that you have and you’re just sitting there watching the story unfold,” Pong explained.

It fortunately unfolded the way engineers had planned.

Pong’s passion for science started at a young age in Hawaii.

“I built model rockets with my dad growing up, and went to Future Flight Hawaii and that’s where I first learned about JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory],” he said.

The 2004 Punahou graduate said, Hawaii is a big reason he is where he is today.

“We went to the planetarium a lot. We learned about ancient Hawaiians navigating by the stars,” he added.

So what is next for Pong? He said, he is now onto the next Mars project.

“[It’s] a mission that will actually go and retrieve the samples that ‘Perseverance’ is collecting or will collect on Mars and bring them back to Earth,” Pong said.

Pong went off to Harvey Mudd College after graduating from Punahou. He then got his Master of Science and Doctor of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“I couldn’t have done it without all of your support, helping shape who I am today,” Pong said about his past teachers and his parents.

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