What first sparked your interest in space and science?
From a very young age, space fascinated me. The idea of traveling to other planets, to the unknown, was fascinating. Apollo 11 was my inspiration to pursue a career in space.
How did you end up working in the space program?
That was a long road! I was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the 70s, a career in aerospace (or being an astronaut) in Brazil was the closest you could get to an impossible dream – or at least that was what I was repeatedly told. That impossible dream was actually my motivation to do even better in school and to prepare myself for my future. In knowledge, I found my strength, and the self-confidence to pursue my dream of becoming an aerospace engineer.
If there is one thing you can take from space exploration is that if at first you don’t succeed try – and fail – and then try again.
When it was time to apply to colleges, the obstacles to my dream became very clear. There were only two schools in Brazil, at that time, that had a curriculum similar to aerospace engineering. Both schools were military schools that only accepted male students. After one year, in the engineering school at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, I moved to the United States to pursue my dream. I was accepted and graduated with honors at the New York Institute of Technology, and later completed my masters at the University of Texas, Austin. An interview at the University of Texas landed me a job at JPL [NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory]. I have been at JPL for over 32 years!
Tell us about your job. What do you do?
I enjoy doing outreach, so when I introduce myself to the public I like to say, "I work on Mars and I build rovers for a living!"
I’m a mechanical and aerospace engineer currently working on the Mars Sample Return-Sample Retrieval Lander Project – a mission that will retrieve and return Mars samples to Earth. I am a product delivery manager, managing a large group of engineers that will design, build, test, and fly the next mission to Mars. My areas of expertise are temperature control, mechanical systems, and integration and testing.
I started my career doing thermal design and analysis for the Cassini spacecraft [to Saturn]. My first Mars mission was Mars Pathfinder, which included the Sojourner rover. I did hardware testing and design validation, from the small scale to the full-spacecraft, thermal system-level testing. So far, I have helped land four rovers on Mars: Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. My fifth rover is Perseverance, which is scheduled to land on Mars in February 2021.
In between Mars missions I have worked on a comet mission (Champollion and DS-4) and a mission to study Earth (SMAP mission). With each mission, I have stepped out of my main area of expertise and I have taken on different opportunities to keep the motivation going.
What's one piece of advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?
Mars is a hard place to reach, and landing on the Martian surface is even harder. If there is one thing you can take from space exploration it's that, if at first you don’t succeed, try – and fail – and then try again. You will learn more from your mistakes than from your successes. So, don’t give up, and persevere.
What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?
After working on so many exciting projects, I have been asked before which mission was the highest point in my career. I have been blessed to have so many, but my career is not defined by its high points. My career is the journey that got me here, and every moment counts. I would rather not think of my most extraordinary experience – or the highest point – because I am afraid that after you achieve a high point it is only downhill from there. So, I continue to strive to get to the next high, without being afraid of reaching the low, but in the end, I know, I will always look back to the journey that got me here. I hope my journey will inspire others.
What is your favorite space image and why?
The image of the Curiosity rover celebrating 8 years on the Red Planet. I am amazed and humbled to have been part of this moment!