“When you think of operating something, you think of the control room. Once again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of people and rooms involved.”
Gregorio Villar III, a Filipino-American operations systems engineer in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) addressed an audience of high school students, college students, and professionals in a talk entitled “Moving the Joystick: What it really takes to operate a rover on Mars,” held in the National Institute of Physics- Intel Auditorium, University of the Philippines Diliman, 11 August 2016.
Villar, who is part of the 2012 Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Mission, shared his experience working on the Curiosity rover, which celebrated its fourth year on Mars last 5 August (PST). He relayed in details the journey of the first nuclear-powered rover from the launch, up to the everyday operations, data gathering and analysis, and monitoring of the Curiosity.
“The main purpose of Curiosity was to determine if life can live on Mars,” said Villar, and with its performance, he said that it seemed to have accomplished its mission.
Villar, who is one of the engineers who manages the plan on what Curiosity rover should do, noted that he felt “very fortunate to be part of all of these teams, seeing all of these processes and operations, and working with some of the smartest people in the world.”
“It took over 800 people to operate the Curiosity rover on Mars, and that’s something I really appreciated. In a way it’s really amazing to be part of that experience,” he added.
Villar is also a member of the landing team of 2020 Mars flight project and attends graduate school, part-time, working on a Masters in Astronautical Engineering in the University of Southern California.
Villar’s Journey to NASA
Once determined to take up Law because of a cousin he looked up to, Villar pursued instead a degree in Physics, specializing in Astrophysics. In his talk, he shared the first time he realized he wanted to do Astronomy, which was during his sophomore year in the California Polytechnic State University. Specifically, it was his experience of using the Hale Telescope in the Palomar Observatory, San Diego County, California.
“Up in the mountains, where it’s dark, I remember at first night, I was there. Pitch black. I stepped at the center [and the] moonlight shined into the dome and illuminated the telescope,” he described. “I want to do this for the rest of my life.”
Afterwhich, he did researches on planetary nebula and Jupiter and got an internship in the NASA JPL during his junior year through the Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology (MUST) program.
After getting the degree, he applied to be part of the JPL and the rest is history. To date, he is considered as one of the youngest engineers in the JPL.
“I just feel very blessed and fortunate to be able to go through life and and to be able to end up where I am today -- I’m in a job which doesn’t feel like a job and it’s something that I really love.”
The event was well-received, as the audience actively participated in the Question and Answer part after the talk. Some of the questions were about NASA’s funding, mechanical aspects of Curiosity, geological aspects of Mars as determined by the rover, management of data gathered, and many more. You can view the excerpt of the Question and Answer part here.
Vice Chancellor for Research and Development Fidel Nemenzo, who gave the welcome remarks, shared that he once dreamed of being an astronomer after the then successful Apollo 11 mission in 1969. With Villar in NASA, and the recent developments with the first Filipino-made microsatellite, Diwata-1, he hoped that these somehow “broke the psychological barrier for Filipinos-- that space and travel to stars [...] as a science fiction.”
“Kaya naman pala ng mga Pilipino ang ginagawa sa ibang bansa kapag may sapat na suporta,” he added.
Dr. Nemenzo also encouraged the students to take up Science and Engineering, which was later seconded by Villar at the end of his talk.
“Hopefully one day you can do really well in engineering or science, and be part of whether it’s NASA or I think the Philippines is starting to establish its first space agency. You guys can make history for the Philippines and build either the first rover or satellite going to Mars,” Villar concluded.
This event was organized by the UP Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute (UP EEEI) and the Philippine Microsatellite (PHL-Microsat) Program.