Latinas at the Forefront of Space Exploration

By Christine Bolaños

The world watched in awe as man first stepped foot on the moon in 1969. One day soon, the entire globe will witness man return to the moon, along with the first woman and first person of color. Then, it’s on to the Red Planet. Only a few years ago, these feats of epic proportions would have seemed impossible, but scientists, researchers, engineers, and leaders at NASA are working around the clock to make history once again. At the forefront of these groundbreaking missions are 12 Latinas who each play diverse, but equally critical roles, to ensure astronauts and spacecraft are ready for these next chapters in space exploration. They all have a calling to serve a purpose greater than themselves — one that brings humanity together and expands our understanding of our world and the universe it calls home. They all have endured setbacks and challenges. They all have a deep passion for their missions and an impeccable work ethic that has been instilled in them by their Latino families. They have a high regard for Dr. Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina astronaut to go to space and lead the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, but are committed to their common duty of mentoring and nourishing the next generation of STEM leaders because they know the world needs more Latinas at the table. They all believe if they could realize their dreams of working at NASA, then so can anyone. These are their stories of impact, innovation and heart.

Dr. Adriana Ocampo Uria
Science Program Manager
NASA Headquarters Science Mission Directorate-Planetary Science Division,
New Frontiers Program

Dr. Adriana Ocampo started climbing up the roof of her home to lay down with her dog beside her and look up at the stars in the sky at a very early age. Her sense of curiosity and thirst for knowledge was further fueled on July 20, 1969, when she witnessed humans set foot on the moon.

“Seeing humans on another planetary surface captured my imagination,” says Dr. Ocampo, who is originally from Colombia and was raised in Argentina. She recalls writing a letter expressing her excitement, sending it via the Post Office with nothing more than “NASA, UNITED STATES,” and somehow, not only did the letter reach NASA, but someone took the time to respond to her. “That was the biggest treasure and the greatest confirmation that dreams can truly come true.”

Today, Dr. Ocampo is a Science Program Manager at NASA Headquarters Science Mission Directorate in the Planetary Science Division. As Lead Program Executive of the New Frontier Program, each mission with a $1 billion-plus budget, she oversees the Juno mission to Jupiter, the New Horizons (NH) mission to Pluto and Arrokoth, the asteroid sample return OSIRIS-REX (which will return a sample of asteroid Bennu in September 2023), and the Dragonfly mission to fly an aerobot to Titan (Saturn’s largest moon).

Under her leadership, the Juno mission launched on time and on budget. New Horizons resulted in the first successful fly-by of Pluto at a time when so little was known about the planet’s system since four additional moons besides Charon, were discovered during the cruise phase to Pluto.

Currently, she is Program Executive for the Lucy mission — the first to explore the Trojan asteroids. In the 1990s, she identified the location of the crater that caused the extinction of dinosaurs 66 million years ago in the Yucatan Peninsula using remote sensing images. She has an asteroid named in her honor. “Latinas have developed a lot of empathy which is important in the sciences and when I lead teams that are very multicultural,” she adds.

Dr. Clara O’Farrell
Mars Entry
Descent and Landing Engineer

Dr. Clara O’Farrell’s life changed when she saw the penguins of Tierra del Fuego in her native Buenos Aires, Argentina. They were oil spill survivors and were rehabilitated. A young impressionable child who happened to visit them with her grandmother, O’Farrell became fascinated with them and began learning everything she could about penguins, the ocean and Antarctica.

When she moved to the US in 2004, she was introduced to the arrival of Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity and was hooked on planetary exploration.

“I found it super interesting that as an engineer, one is able to be a part of answering fundamental questions of our universe,” O’Farrell says. “I heard the team’s stories and wanted to work with them. In particular fellow Argentine engineer Miguel San Martín. I thought if one of us can do it, maybe two of us can do it.”

Today, she is an Entry, Descent and Landing Engineer for entry to the Red Planet. At JPL, Dr. O’Farrell specializes in the aerodynamics of landing on other worlds. Some of her most notable work includes developing and testing the supersonic parachute for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and developing a new parachute for the upcoming Mars Sample Return missions.

The parachute travels almost at twice the speed of sound because the atmosphere on Mars is so much less dense than on Earth. The team Dr. O’Farrell worked with developed the parachute, which was more than 70 feet in diameter, and the largest one ever used.

The team completed three successful tests, including carrying the highest load ever survived by supersonic parachutes, only to break its own record five months later.

“The principal question we’re attempting to answer is was there ever microbial life on Mars. These are fundamental questions for us as humans and what we find can affect how we look at the Red Planet. Every time we find something, it affects what instruments we’re going to take and what we’re going to be looking for,” Dr. O’Farrell explains. Coming from a big Latino family has made it a seamless transition into NASA’s work culture where teamwork is of utmost importance.

“Being South American, being binational, has really influenced my wanting to serve a bigger purpose. I love the fact that what we do here at NASA is for everyone. It’s about increasing humanity’s understanding of space and our role in the universe,” shared the NASA Early Career Exceptional Public Achievement Medal recipient.

Christina Hernández
Aerospace Engineer
Mars Rover

Christina Hernández became engrossed in space exploration at 7 years old, whilst flipping through the pages of a large coffee table book with NASA images. She came across a beautiful high-resolution image of Saturn and its rings and was enthralled.

“It blew my mind,” Hernández says. “It was really through books that I fell in love with the beauty of space and chaotic things like black holes, giant gas planets and nuclear asteroids.”

She dreamt of the impossible and found in Dr. Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina to go to space and lead the Johnson Space Center, her own Sally Ride-like role model.

Today she is a NASA Aerospace Engineer working on the Mars Perseverance rover. She served as one of the payload systems engineers responsible for designing, building and testing three of the seven scientific instruments on Mars Rover. These include the MEDA (weather station), RIMFAX (radar) and PIXL (spectrometer). Hernández guided the team to the delivery of 13 pieces of instrument hardware and three instrument software packages on the rover.

Now she serves as Payload Downlink Coordinator on the Mars instrument operations team. “As Payload Downlink Coordinator, I’m responsible for the sol’s (solar day on Mars) operations of the entire set of instruments on any given Martian day.

We get the data back from the rover and then I work with the instruments team to make sure the instruments are safe, have completed their science and are ready for the next sol,” Hernández explains.

She serves as PIXL’s team lead for surface commissioning activities on Mars. Hernández, a Los Angeles native, works at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she defined the space environment for JPL’s flight projects and ensured spacecraft were safe from orbital debris, micrometeoroids and radiation. She is as passionate about moving the aerospace industry toward progress as she is about science itself. She wants her industry to be more inclusive, transparent and diverse — and to raise awareness of non-traditional pathways to engineering.

“One of the things I’ve learned being on the Mars Perseverance Mission is how amazing it is when we come together for a challenge like this. We’re a team of engineers, scientists, business people and administrators. Everyone at the table is pushing forward in this. We flew a helicopter on Mars. We created oxygen on Mars. We can accomplish these amazing feats together and Latinas are at the forefront of that and being on the Mars Perseverance Mission is how amazing it is when we come together for a challenge like this. We’re a team of engineers, scientists, business people and administrators,” she adds. “Everyone at the table is pushing forward in this. We flew a helicopter on Mars. We created oxygen on Mars. We can accomplish these amazing feats together and Latinas are at the forefront of that.”

Sarah Yearicks
Planetary Protection Engineer
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Sarah Yearicks embraces the power of hard work and determination. That’s because she was raised by a single mother and Peruvian-Mexican grandparents in the San Fernando Valley of California.

Her grandfather recognized the promise of a college degree and its ability to help Yearicks gain financial independence. That work ethic is what landed her the Caltech SURF Internship with the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and her eventual hiring as Planetary Protection Engineer at JPL. As Planetary Protection Engineer, Yearicks helped maintain and assess the biological cleanliness of the Mars Perseverance Rover, the Mars InSight Lander, and currently, the Europa Clipper mission.

Planetary Protection aims to protect solar system bodies from contamination by Earth-life, and likewise, to protect Earth from possible life forms (if they exist) that may be returned from other solar system bodies. Yearicks describes Planetary Protection as a scientific discipline that merges solar system exploration with microbiology; a perfect marriage of her interests. “There are approximately 5 million trillion bacteria on Earth.

The goal of planetary protection is to ensure that we limit contamination to other sites in the solar system from Earth-microbes. So, spacecraft are assembled in cleanroom facilities, frequently wiped clean, and meticulously sampled before launch,” Yearicks explains. To measure biological contamination, Yearicks looks for spores; hardy structures formed by certain bacteria in order to survive harsh environmental conditions.

Spores are extremely resilient, which makes them the most likely form of terrestrial life to be able to potentially survive on another planet. Her contributions to space exploration are palpable as evidenced by NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter—Ingenuity is the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet.

During its assembly, Yearicks took planetary protection samples of Ingenuity’s legs, blades, solar panels, and avionics in order to make sure it was biologically clean and ready for flight. She has come a long way since she witnessed a rare meteor shower as a young girl in awe.

Dr. Yasmina Martos
Assistant Research Scientist

Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Maryland College Park

Dr. Yasmina Martos, an Assistant Research Scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center, likes to say she has a scientific “double life”: one on Earth and one in space.

On Earth, she specializes in polar regions, mostly Antarctica, and in space, Jupiter’s magnetosphere, which is the region around the planet that acts like a shield against the Sun’s particles.

She works with data from the Juno magnetometer instrument as part of the Juno mission to Jupiter. While there are big differences in her “lives,” the best part is that she gets to study the magnetic field in both cases. On Earth, the magnetic field provides data about what lies beneath the surface and ice. There is much less known about Jupiter, which is why Dr. Martos works to understand the interaction between Jupiter and its moon lo and the particles that travel between them.

“I try to understand how the moon lo and Jupiter’s magnetic field interact or communicate using, for example, electrons. We have learned many new aspects of the magnetic field in giant planets thanks to Juno,” says Dr. Martos.

“Understanding magnetic environments helps us understand if planets have the potential to contain life. Very recently, the Juno mission was extended until September 2025, which is fantastic.”

The Spanish native has participated in more than 20 international projects and 15 expeditions, offshore and inland, to places like Antarctica, the Dominican Republic and the Indian and Atlantic oceans. Her love for the universe came at a young age and from a strong desire to understand how the Earth, solar system, galaxy and universe work.

Dr. Martos, who lives by the motto: “I didn’t come this far to only come this far,” sees the same sense of wonder she had as a child in elementary school children she visits with. They are engaged and believe in limitless possibilities without regard for economic status or gender.

Ali Guarneros Luna
Program Manager for Tipping Points (TP) and Announcement of Collaboration Opportunity (ACO) Under Small Spacecraft Technology Program (SSTP) from The Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD)

Ali Guarneros Luna is a model example of dreams realized with grit and perseverance. The mother of four went back to school to fulfill her dream of becoming an engineer at NASA working on small satellite technology.

Today, she plays a critical part in the team charged with developing technology for missions to the moon and Mars. It all started with her love of reading books while growing up in Mexico.

An encyclopedia that showed a space shuttle attached to a launch pad captured Guarneros Luna’s imagination. She discovered that aerospace engineers designed the spacecraft and became intrigued for life. That fascination ultimately led her to NASA and her current role as senior NASA Aerospace Engineer supporting the Small Satellite Technology (SST) Program at The Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), managing the Tipping Points program and other small satellites.

“We’re focusing on going to the moon again and I supervise the infrastructure for communication relay from Capstone Mission Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment with another satellite already on the moon,” explains Guarneros Luna, who migrated to California at 14 years old. CAPSTONE is a microwave oven-sized CubeSat (miniaturized satellite for space research) that will ultimately help reduce risk for future spacecraft.

Guarneros Luna has been involved in several other small spacecraft programs. She began her career as an intern at NASA Ames Research Center working with the Center’s Chief of Technology. That experience fueled her desire to make NASA accessible to less privileged communities through internships and mentoring. “I never thought of myself as an engineer when I was a single mother of four kids and going to school to get my degree. Getting my internship completely changed my life,” she says.

Africa Flores
Research Scientist Earth System Science Center
University of Alabama-Huntsville Ph.D. student at McGill University

Originally from Guatemala, Africa Flores grew up enamored with the biodiversity and natural richness of her home country. But even as a young girl she noticed how badly managed the natural resources were.

For example, the Ocosito River was so highly polluted in her small village town of Retalhuleu she had to travel nearly 2 miles to her grandparents’ home in the main part of town to get clean drinking water. “That’s where my interest in science stemmed from. I wanted to study something that could give me the skills to manage our natural resources better,” Flores says. Today she is a Research Scientist at Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a Ph.D. student at McGill University.

Flores is a National Geographic Explorer charged with forecasting harmful algae blooms in Lake Atitlán using artificial intelligence. She works with SERVIR, a joint NASA and USAID initiative, on forest monitoring, water quality and ecological forecasting, serving as the Land Cover Land Use Change and Ecosystems Theme Lead.

She served as co-editor of the SAR-Handbook, a compilation of applied methodologies to use synthetic aperture radar technology for forest monitoring and biomass estimation.

At her core, Flores wants to find sustainable solutions for issues like water pollution using available technology such as satellite images or artificial intelligence. Access to clean water is a big issue not only in Guatemala but around the world.

“Lakes and rivers are experiencing more stress and pollution. Algae blooms are a clear effect of that. Algae blooms have the capacity to produce toxins, the fish can eat the algae and then the fish can be toxic as well,” she explains. “It also reduces the amount of oxygen available for any other life form there and it affects the whole (biological) system that is living in the water.” Using technology, Flores’ team develops algorithms to estimate concentration of algae and allow for preventative measures to be taken in places like Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

Dr. Marla E. Pérez-Davis
Director
NASA Glenn Research Center

As Director of NASA Glenn Research Center, Dr. Marla E. Pérez-Davis fully embraces NASA’s mission “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.”

She is responsible for planning, organizing and directing the activities necessary to accomplish the Center’s mission. This includes leading a staff of more than 3,200 civil service and support contract employees and an annual budget of $900 million-plus.

The Ohio-based Center has its main campus at Lewis Field and a subsidiary facility in Sandusky. The Sandusky facility is home to the Space Environments Complex (SEC), which houses the world’s largest and most powerful space environment simulation facilities. They include the largest space simulation vacuum chamber, the most powerful spacecraft acoustic test chamber and the world’s highest capacity and most powerful spacecraft shaker system.

“Back in March 2020, we completed testing for the Orion spacecraft that will now be used for Artemis I, which is an uncrewed test flight that will go beyond the moon,” Pérez-Davis, a Puerto Rico native, says. Artemis is named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology and is the program that will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon’s South Pole.

The Center does testing for both NASA and commercial partners, including lunar and Mars exploration hardware, deep space propulsion systems, and advanced materials tests.

“On the aeronautics side, we develop and test electric aircraft propulsion. Back in the day, we were talking about electric cars. Now we’re doing the same electric aircraft propulsion for airplanes,” Pérez-Davis explains. “So, we are working on the technologies that are going to fulfill that mission.”

A true leader, Pérez-Davis received numerous awards including the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal and the prestigious Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Executives.

“We do the impossible. We go and explore other planets and go into deep space,” Pérez-Davis shares. “We tackle these big challenges by working together.”

Jessica Taylor
Physical Scientist
NASA Langley Research Center

Jessica Taylor grew up just outside of Tampa, Florida, the “lightning capital of the world.”

She had witnessed countless thunderstorms by the time she got to high school and always thought of them as beautiful. But it wasn’t until a teacher assigned her research on lightning that she discovered even scientists had more to learn about it. That fascination led her to pursue a degree in meteorology and eventually become a Physical Scientist at NASA Langley Research Center.

Taylor serves as lead of the Science Education Team and as Principal Investigator for GLOBE Clouds and My NASA Data. She coordinates an interdisciplinary team of educators, scientists, technology experts and communications specialists who collaborate with the education community to bring real-world Earth science practices and data to students.

“These two programs have a common element of trying to engage learners of all ages with science and particularly NASA science. Our aim is to engage people from all walks of life and ages,”

Taylor explains. The GLOBE Clouds team engages students and the public in NASA-relevant science in 125 countries. In 2020, over 270,000 observations of clouds and sky conditions were documented and submitted through GLOBE’s worldwide database.

“I can tell that I make an impact when I hear back from teachers about how one of our NASA lessons helped students get excited about science. My work is to inspire through NASA.”

Taylor says. Taylor — who spent childhood summers in Mexico — served as Chair for the International Education Working Group at the GLOBE Program, on various NASA committees and co-developed training for science communication experts. This culminated in her 2016 invitation by the White House Council for Women and Girls in STEM Working Group to lead a role model train-the-trainer program.

“I’ve been given this opportunity to be a mentor to students, and girls and girls of color in particular, and get a chance to speak about diversity and inclusion. It wasn’t until NASA that I was able to dive into this,” Taylor shares.

Dr. Dionne M. Hernández-Lugo
Project Manager
Fission Surface Power NASA’s Glenn Research Center

Landing humans on the Red Planet is a tremendous endeavor that is impossible without energy. Energy is essential to creating oxygen, providing heat and light, establishing communication and so much more.

That’s where Dr. Dionne M. Hernández-Lugo, Project Manager for Fission Surface Power at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, comes in. She is on a mission to create energy systems that astronauts need to live and work on the moon and the Red Planet.

“These missions require a power system. It’s like the equivalent of a power plant here on earth. We’re trying to develop a small nuclear power plant that will be a constant source of power during the duration of the mission,” says Dr. Hernández-Lugo. “I lead a team of engineers at NASA and the Department of Energy to develop a flight system of a 10kW-electric fission surface power system. Once built, the goal is to demonstrate the system on the Moon.”

The team hopes to have the system developed by the late 2020s which will allow astronauts to utilize innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than has ever been possible.

Part of the Artemis program’s goal is to land the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon. NASA, along with its commercial and international partners, will use the moon as a proving ground to demonstrate new technologies and then use its findings to send astronauts to Mars. The Puerto Rico native joined NASA in 2013 as a Pathway Intern in the Photovoltaic and Electrochemical System Branch.

She volunteers at NASA’s STEM symposiums and served as chair of the Hispanic Advisory Group for three years. An author of multiple research papers, Dr. Hernández-Lugo also has several awards under her belt, including the HENAAC Great Minds in STEM Luminary Awards, for her significant contributions to the Latino community.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot make it,” she advises. “Use that as your fuel to show them you can actually do it and earn your place at the table.”

Dr. Yaireska Collado-Vega
Director
Moon to Mars (M2M) Space Weather Office

Dr. Yaireska Collado-Vega says a family trip to Orlando for her sister’s quinceañeara changed her life. The family visited Kennedy Space Center where she realized she wanted to work for NASA despite her young age. People laughed at her when she told them about her aspiration and earning a “C” in her first college physics test gave her doubts.

But her professor believed she had a bright future in physics and convinced her to give herself another chance. It’s thanks to that professor, in part, that she is now Director of the Moon to Mars (M2M) Space Weather Office at NASA.

Dr. Collado-Vega began her career at NASA as an intern before becoming a permanent employee, transitioning to operations and becoming the eventual leader of the M2M office, which was just established in 2020. The M2M office was created to support NASA’s Space Radiation Analysis Group with human space exploration activities by providing expert-based analysis of the space radiation environment.

“I started the team from scratch during the pandemic. I hired new people, trained them and we are now starting the transition of models that are going to be used to support humans on the moon and then Mars,” she explains. “We have to make sure everything is running smoothly operationally.”

The M2M Office provides accurate real-time experimental research forecasting of the space environment and their probable impacts for NASA missions. With humans returning to the moon, safety is a priority, followed by carrying out the missions successfully.

Dr. Collado-Vega researches the solar wind interaction with the Earth’s magnetic environment. She also works on validation of magnetospheric models and developments on machine learning capabilities to improve space weather analysis and forecasting. In addition, she provides education and public outreach on her work. “You can be anything you want to be but it’s not going to be easy. You’re going to have to work hard and sometimes swim against the current,” she advises.

Diana Trujillo
Aerospace Engineer
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Flight director for NASA’s Mars Perseverance and Aerospace engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Diana Trujillo has worked on the team that created the robotic arm that will collect rock samples on Mars.

“What we are trying to do is go around the surface of this unknown planet and try to find if at some point there was life on the surface of Mars,” she says in an interview with NASA-JPL Behind the Spacecraft — Live Q&A. “I feel like a lucky person to be working on this.”

Colombian-born Trujillo immigrated to the United States at the age of 17 to pursue her dream of working for NASA. She joined NASA in 2007 and worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center on the Constellation program and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on human and robotic space missions. She has served many roles, including Surface Sampling System Activity Lead and Dust Removal Tool Lead Systems Engineer.

She was responsible for ensuring Curiosity’s sampling fulfilled its science objectives dust-free while maintaining operational safety. Trujillo worked as flight director on the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover robotic arm and on February 2021, she hosted NASA’s first Spanish-language planetary landing show.

NOTE: Diana Trujillo was not available for an interview for this edition.

Photo courtesy: NASA

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