Touchdown dance

MU alumna and NASA engineer Brooke Harper performed the dance with fellow engineer Gene Bonfiglio.

The first Mars robotic lander designed to give scientists their first peek at the planet’s interior landed Monday. InSight’s landing was watched by millions of people around the world, especially by NASA’s own scientists.

So how does an engineer celebrate that touchdown? With a touchdown dance of her own.

Brooke Harper, an engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and an MU alumna, performed the dance with fellow engineer Gene Bonfiglio. The video quickly went viral.

“I partied like a freshman at Harpo’s,” Harper said in an interview with the Missourian.

The other dancer, Bonfiglio, has been with the lab for 20 years and worked on InSight for about six years, Harper said. Most of their banter comes from their mutual appreciation surrounding the NFL: Bonfiglio is a New England Patriots fan, and Harper is a Kansas City Chiefs fan.

“We thought it would be fitting to have a touchdown dance when a touchdown occurred,” Harper said. “We didn’t know we’d be on camera; we just thought we’d be an Easter egg for people looking closely. I’m unused to the attention, but it’s exciting that MU claimed me and it puts Mizzou on the map. It’s a lot of joy, and it means a lot.”

Harper, whose grandmother is the oldest season ticket holder in Chiefs history, said that football appreciation is in her blood. She and her family are hoping for a Super Bowl run with the success of second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the team.

“People have been sending me: ‘How can you be a Chiefs fan if you ripped off a 49ers touchdown dance?’” Harper said with a laugh, referring to the origin of the dance. “But the Chiefs won that game, and it was a cool dance!”

Harper graduated from MU with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2011. She attended Georgia Tech for graduate school to focus on entry, descent and landing engineering.

“Though I went to Georgia Tech for grad school, I credit all my fundamentals of higher level math and sciences to Mizzou,” Harper said. “I credit all my professors and the peers I went to school with. It’s all surreal to see that it can actually make a difference. I can look back and appreciate MU and how it’s part of my trajectory to getting where I am now.”

She is now an entry, descent and landing system engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. She has been with the lab for 4½ years.

“I started with InSight; it’s kind of my baby,” Harper said. “I was the newbie on our large team that had dedicated years to this mission already when I arrived.”

Two weeks prior to Monday‘s touchdown, the JPL team began to go over the last trajectory correction maneuvers to hit the entry point; the members worked 12-hour shifts.

“I slept in my office before touchdown because I was such a ball of nerves, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I went home,” said Harper, whose shifts ran from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. “I wanted to be on lab and be ready. There was lots of exhaustion, but it’s all worth it.”

Scientists hope to see marsquakes and information about Mars’ core, Harper said. InSight, which will place a seismometer on the surface of Mars and measure internal heat flow, will study the interior of Mars and how Mars formed. This could bring further understanding to Earth’s own formation. While Harper and her team’s job is completed, the surface and deployment team now has the daunting task of placing more instruments on Mars, which will be deployed in two to three months, Harper said.

“As an EDL engineer, you live in constant paranoia,” Harper said. “There are a lot of events that need to go right. Once we left Earth, we felt fear and terror of the unknowns. It’s not a fun place to be nervous all the time, but I was confident in our team and our calculations.”

Supervising editors are Elizabeth Brixey and Claire Mitzel: news@columbiamissourian.com, 882-5720.

  • Fall 2018 Education reporter. I am a junior studying english and news editing.

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