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."
Checking in ... beep-beep ... beep-beep.
It’s been an incredible and almost surreal week in the land of jet propulsion, and to try and summarize the emotions and sights into words is daunting, as the vocabulary escapes me.
It seems as though around every corner, you meet someone who is so friendly and inspiring that it’s hard not to just smile and try and listen in amazement. From sending beeps aimed at distant galaxies looking for anomalies in the return signal, to brilliant twenty-somethings building descent stage thrusters capable of hovering above the surface of Mars like a UFO, to the beautiful array of different languages and cultures you hear just on your way to the coffee grove, the people and mission here make it hard to contain a smile.
The department I’m writing from is the Deep Space Network (DSN), Antenna Mechanical Group, an incredibly diverse group of people who have welcomed me with open arms. Comprised of a complex network and interface of all different departments and jobs, the DSN is responsible for monitoring all spacecraft currently exploring the universe, searching the night sky for signals and pushing the envelope of what is possible for future communication and data acquisition.
I have an official government NASA office with a phone and voice mail to boot, and the speed and vigor at which things move around here is mind-blowing. It seems imperative to listen and write fast, even if what you’re hearing seems unreal or beyond belief, and before you know it, you're neck deep in documents and learning curves that didn’t seem possible when you got out of bed this morning. The part I enjoy tremendously is walking outside my office and seeing my fellow DSN antenna mechanical office mates, who are mechanical, civil, structural, aerospace engineers, attacking a white dry erase board with looks of determination. They make cuts in beams, figure out angles and calculate distributed loads in order to find failure points for future antenna-component construction, all of which Effat Rady, my amazing engineering professor at Montana State University has taught me and stressed the importance of, time and time again. It seems as thought the days are lightning quick here, and the only thing I can seem to do after riding my bike home is run in the San Gabriel mountains as far as I can to try to process everything that happened in a day.
The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, the largest and most intelligent rover to date, departed the Lab this morning after years of complete dedication and planning by thousands of people.
I was one of a handful of people who was lucky enough to witness the incredible entourage and police escort of the rover -- sending it one step further on its quest to explore where Mankind has not yet set foot -- as my mentor Jason Carlton was an integral part of the rover, descent stage, and heat shield container builds, assembly, and mating of all components with their transports.