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Diana Trujillo, the Colombian-American Who Led the Historic Mission to Mars


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She arrived in the United States at the age of 17, fleeing violence and limited opportunities in her native country. She worked four jobs to pay for her engineering degree that led her to become the first Latina at NASA: Diana Trujillo, an example of self-improvement and inspiration in the United States for thousands of Hispanic women.

Trujillo is a NASA engineer and is currently the flight director of the Mars 2020 mission. The Perseverance, the most advanced robot rover ever sent by man to explore other worlds, landed on the Martian surface on Thursday.

The Colombian, born in Cali, fled her country in the midst of the war against drug trafficking and guerrillas in Colombia. She arrived in the United States two decades ago without speaking English and with $300 in her pocket.

Diana has acknowledged in several interviews that she worked four jobs as a domestic to pay for her studies in space sciences and then in Aerospace Engineering, which led her to become the first Latina at NASA.

While studying, Trujillo was selected to be part of the NASA Academy program, a sort of summer camp where the space agency inspires young people and takes advantage of the opportunity to scout potential talent. There, Trujillo met Peter Diamandis, creator of the XPrize Foundation, which, together with Google, awarded a $30 million prize to those involved in making space trips to the Moon.

At the academy, Trujillo also met Brian Roberts, a NASA robotics expert who recommended that, if she wanted to work at the agency, she should move to the state of Maryland, near the nation’s capital.

Trujillo didn’t think twice: “By transferring to the University of Maryland, I was set back a year in my studies, but it was worth it because I managed to get into NASA’s education department as an academy operations manager.”

After graduating from college, Trujillo worked for eight months at Orbital Sciences on a project that competed against SpaceX. At the end of 2009, Trujillo and her husband, William, moved to Los Angeles to work at the XPrize headquarters there. There, Trujillo applied to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where the agency builds most of its unmanned spacecraft.

“I was interviewed by a person named Gentry who, at the time, I didn’t know who he was. It turns out he’s the chief engineer at JPL, a very important person at NASA. Everything went perfectly and I was hired without having a Master’s degree or a PhD. That’s why people should stop thinking that to work at NASA you have to be a genius with five postgraduate degrees. I started not speaking English well, behind in college, and now here I am, thanks to the drive of my people, who taught me not to give up,” she told El Tiempo.

Where is Trujillo now?

Diana started at JPL at the bottom, on the Curiosity mission, which was Perseverance’s predecessor, working on the robotic arm team. As she explains, she was examining the robot at three in the morning, when no one wanted to go to the lab.

“Soon I was number four in the entire mission, on par with colleagues who had 20 to 25 years of experience, when I had only six. I think I was also motivated by that desire we Hispanics have to work hard. If someone tells us there’s a 99 percent chance something won’t work, we hold on to the remaining one percent, and it turns out that mentality is what it takes to explore the unknown, space.”

After several years on Curiosity, and the mission’s success, she sought a new challenge and moved to the Perseverance team. She was the leader of the surface phase of the robotic arm and two instruments. “It’s been amazing because I came in at a time when everything was going half wrong,” she explained. “So if there’s chaos, call me.

Away from her team and from a room with few people, Trujillo was at the front of the virtual transmission revealing the details of the construction of the equipment, sharing the testimony of other Latino colleagues who participated in this mission and, above all, smiling for the pride of taking the fifth exploration vehicle of the U.S. space agency to the surface of the red planet.

Trujillo’s story, beyond the existing prejudices about certain social and political systems, demonstrates that the benefit of free-market capitalism is that anyone who really makes an effort, sets a goal, and works hard, regardless of their background, can achieve their dreams and reach Mars.

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