Somewhere on Mars, the initials of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, J-P-L, are written in Morse code spanning hundreds of meters across the red planet. It's this kind of detail that thrills JPL scientist Moogega Cooper - especially since JPL, considered NASA's little brother, accomplished this on the sly.
"Initially, for the robotics missions, we had JPL [stamped] on the wheels so that as it rolls along Mars it would tag Mars: JPL, JPL, JPL. And NASA stepped in and said, 'No, you can't do that,'?" Cooper explains. "So JPL said, 'OK, sure, we'll take that off.' And instead they put it in Morse code."
Cooper, named rainbow or "moo-jee-gae" by her Korean mother and raised by her African-American World War II veteran father, is a human comet of beauty, intelligence and creativity. The scientist graduated from high school at 16, and at 24 earned her Ph.D., then launched her NASA career.
Now 28, she is a planetary protection engineer at JPL. A big part of her job is making sure that NASA doesn't contaminate other planets with terrestrial microorganisms or any other Earth life, and vice versa - bacteria from, say, Mars, that could potentially harm humans.
She's currently working on a 2020 Mars mission, which involves drilling core samples from the planet, and contamination prevention during NASA's orbit of Jupiter's icy moon, Europa. "It's so great! We recently saw that there are geysers on the surface of Europa and that means it's much more active than we thought," Cooper says.
The California transplant has known since middle school in Hampton, Va., that she wanted to poke around in outer space. "Every week I went to the library and we would rent Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Then I would walk around and say, 'I want to be an astrophysicist!' ... People thought I was crazy," she says with a laugh.
That only made her more determined. Her family lived near NASA-Langley, where at 16 she got her first job - programming. "I made a program that looked at satellite data," Cooper explains, peppering her speech with asides about robots and "solar bodies" and phrases like "we intersected."
Cooper recently was a contestant on TBS' reality competition show King of the Nerds, and appeared on season two as an "elder nerd," gaining a considerable following. Her 3,800-plus Facebook fans send messages such as: "Your answer to the sudoku was right, you got shafted!" and "u really work at NASA?"
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SHOW ME HOW
It's easy to get confused, because this is no nerd. Cooper is poised and well-spoken - in her orderly Pasadena apartment, a photo from a party shows her curly hair blown out in a sleek style. She's wearing a coquettish smile, and beside her is the Ryan Gosling - good-looking film editor she's dating. They look like cool kids who just sauntered off a film set.
When Cooper's not in the lab, she's running or cycling around L.A. County, training for triathlons. She taught herself to bike and swim two years ago, just so she could compete. "I don't get on the podium, not even close ... but I finish," she says.
Cooper loves - and destroys - the obstacles in her way. But not without thought. "I use the scientific method in everything I do," she says. "Not just work."