About 185 people in the United States can say, “I went to high school with Dr. MiMi Aung.” And only about 43 of us can say we were in her graduating class at Blue Mound High School in Blue Mound, Illinois. These are just a couple of the details from Dr. Aung’s humble beginnings. Aung’s recent accolades might just be one of the biggest accomplishments for a Blue Mound graduate. Certainly, her recent star-power has all of us watching the news regularly to catch a glimpse of that familiar smile from so long ago.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about MiMi Aung, the NASA project manager from Jet Propulsion Laboratories who engineered the first powered flight on another planet. The Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, and its history-making flight are the products of teamwork, but Dr. Aung, a 53-year-old Burmese-American was at the helm as the lead project manager.
When I first heard the name MiMi Aung in the news, I was sitting at my dining room table working on my computer. I took a pause briefly, shook my head, and thought, “Naw, there are probably thousands of people on earth with that name.” So I continued working until I heard her name again. At that point, I looked up to see a familiar face from times gone by, and it made me smile.
The world knows Dr. Aung as an innovative NASA engineer who led a massive team that conducted the first powered flight on another planet. I know MiMi as that shy, unassuming young teenager who enrolled at Blue Mound High School as her final preparation for attending the University of Illinois.
The way I remember the story is MiMi went to an international school in Great Britain for her first years of prep school. The school then allowed students to spend their final year at a school that would set them up for the university experience of their choice.
MiMi’s parents had attended the University of Illinois and Mimi wanted to do the same. In the fall of 1983, MiMi’s parents sent her to live with college friends in the states. Those friends just happened to live in Blue Mound’s school district, and I just happened to be in the same graduating class.
However, in doing a little research on my old friend, I saw that she was born in 1968 which makes her two years younger than me and my other classmates. I was a little taken aback that she was so young. At 16 she was managing all of our highest level senior classes. But then on second thought. I’m really not that surprised.
With her recent successes all over the news, other classmates and I have had several conversations about MiMi, and two things continue to stand out. First of all, MiMi liked everyone and everyone liked her. Navigating high school can be brutal, but Mimi made the social aspect of the terrible teenage years look easy with genuine kindness.
Looking back, coming to a new country, making new friends– none of which look like you– and being away from her parents, all at age 16 must have been extremely difficult. And then there’s the academic part of her mission in the US. MiMi’s whole purpose for being with us was to gain admittance into the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. She literally studied all the time. Her discipline towards her education was phenomenal, and all of us who had classes with her were amazed by her brilliance on a daily basis.
My dad happened to be the school counselor at my high school, and he worked diligently with MiMi to secure her spot on the U of I campus. And believe it or not, my brother dated MiMi for a while, and they went to prom together. But, it had been nearly 40 years since I had seen MiMi when I heard her name that day on the news. When I looked up, she had the same unmistakably humble smile even though she would have every reason to brag.
In high school, I had very few classes with MiMi because she was on a drastically different path. She kept my dad–who also taught anatomy-physiology– and Mr. Morr our chemistry and physics teacher on their toes. And our mathematics teacher was equally thrilled with MiMi’s studious nature and obvious intellectual gifts. I think everyone who was in a classroom with MiMi learned a few things that year, including her teachers. But I can still see MiMi’s charming smile, petite stature, and long, straight black hair toting a pile of books down the hallway to her next class. And somehow, even then, we all knew she was something special.
And so I watched the interview in amazement as MiMi talked about the Ingenuity helicopter’s make-up and how it was expected to maneuver with counter-rotating blades that whirl 24,000 revolutions per minute. She expertly discussed its solar panel, communication antennae, and more. She spoke with an appreciation for her team that laid out the mathematical equations and created the software that makes Ingenuity work.
She went on to explain that there were people who designed the electronics, the thermal power fixtures, and the mechanical devices for the helicopter. And as she spoke, it was clear that she also played a vital role in all of these tasks as the project manager. She controlled and facilitated this history-making venture—I was not the least bit surprised by her apparent leadership.
Even though we have received an enormous amount of information about Ingenuity and Dr. Aung lately, I can’t help but believe that most of us don’t fathom what this voyage means for science and space discovery. But then again, this fact rings true with all of my other interactions with MiMi. Back in high school, we all knew she was on a trajectory to do great things. Even if most of us didn’t understand them—we knew. In that perspective, her recent achievements are no surprise for all who knew the quiet, studious, and brilliant MiMi Aung back in 1984.