It's five days till launch and Gregory Galgana Villar III, a mere 24 years old and a relatively new hire at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is preparing to take part in one of the most ambitious NASA missions. In the wee morning hours of Nov. 26, Villar will step into the dark room in JPL's mission control center -- a place filled with scientists and engineers stationed at computer monitors of all kinds - to anxiously await the launch of a mission eight years in the making.
Villar is one of the youngest verification and validation engineers on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission team, a fact that often inspires wonder about his journey.
"I spent two years interning with three different education programs at JPL," said Villar, who participated in the Laboratory's Minority Initiatives Internship, Space Grant and Undergraduate Student Research Program as an undergrad student at Cal Poly, Pomona. "Then I started realizing I needed a job. I sent out emails to about 125 people at the lab and got a job doing cost models. After six months, opportunities with MSL came up, so I applied for a couple of positions and got one."
Tenacity has certainly worked in Villar's favor, but so has his chameleon-like ability to not only take on widely different disciplines, but also rise to success in each one. Over the years, he's gone from observing stars and planets to majoring in physics while interning at JPL with some of the most renowned scientists in the world to now working in an engineering discipline on one of NASA's flagship missions. And while his journey seems astounding to onlookers, Villar chalks it up to the basic skill of adapting.
"As with any job, it's not really your background, it's how smart you are and how well you adapt or how fast you can learn on the job," said Villar. "So long as they see that you're very motivated and smart, they'll take you on for the job."
Now part of the team that tested spacecraft operations and prepared the new Mars rover, Curiosity, for its journey to the Red Planet, Villar is making his own preparations for 7:02 a.m. PST Saturday morning when the Mars Science Laboratory launch window opens and all of the mission team's hard work pays off. It'll be just the beginning of the spacecraft's journey -- and hardly the end to Villar's. In fact, he's already set his sights on his next career move.
"I'm on the Verification and Validation team until we get to Mars," said Villar, who was also recently accepted into the astronautical engineering master's program at the University of Southern California, but is deferring until the rover has landed. "I'm working on extending my future with the mission team, but wherever JPL takes me, wherever my future takes me, is where I'll go."