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Meet the bold and brilliant Latinos of NASA

Reaching for the stars in a country that has a culture and language different from their own is a dream that’s been realized by Latinos whose hard work and discipline led them to earn a place at NASA. The agency is responsible for launching satellites, probes, manned aircraft, and rovers to research and explore the solar system and beyond. Over the years, more than a few Latinos have made their mark at the agency, helping humanity understand its place in the cosmos. Here are a few of the most notable:

This article is part of our ongoing Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, in which we celebrate the achievements and contributions of Hispanic people to the world of science and tech.

Evelyn Millares

Evelyn Miralles at NASA
Evelyn Miralles, the engineer who was in charge of the Virtual Reality Lab at the Johnson Space Center. Image used with permission by copyright holder

At the age of 20, Evelyn Millares migrated from Venezuela to the United States to become an architect. Later, at the University of Houston, she began her long journey in the world of computer science and virtual reality.

After completing her graduate studies in space science at Harvard, Millares joined the Virtual Reality Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, where she worked for more than 20 years, becoming the chief engineer and technology strategist for the facility.

In addition to building a 3D model of a house on the moon, Millares’ most notable works include DOUG (Dynamic Onboard Ubiquitous Graphics), a virtual reality training software that helps train astronauts, and EDGE, a research program used at all NASA centers in the U.S.

“My passion started from an interest in architecture, in building something. I ended up building the space station in 3D, so I think I achieved that goal!” she once told AARP in an interview.

Rodolfo Neri Vela

Rodolfo Neri Vela at NASA
Rodolfo Neri Vela, first Mexican astronaut at NASA. Image used with permission by copyright holder

Rodolfo Neri Vela is not only the first Mexican astronaut, but also the first Latin American representative on a NASA mission of any kind.

A communications and electronics engineer, he graduated from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and earned a master’s degree in telecommunications from England’s University of Essex and a doctorate in applied electromagnetics from heh U.K.’s University of Birmingham, Vela was selected in 1985 by NASA to be part of the STS-61-B Mission, the second mission of the shuttle Atlantis. Aboard Atlantis, Vela orbited the Earth 109 times as a payload specialist.

He has also collaborated with the European Space Agency, specifically on the International Space Station (ISS) project. He has also been a lecturer and professor, authored several books, hosted television shows, and been a passionate promoter of science.

Laura Delgado López

Laura Delgado López
Laura Delgado López, public policy analyst at the Science Mission Directorate. Image used with permission by copyright holder

In her native Puerto Rico and during her teenage years, Laura Delgado thought she would devote herself to her career as a full-time artist. But while NASA was not part of her initial plans, she was sure she wanted a career that would allow her to travel and surround herself with people she could learn from on a daily basis.

Delgado did not study engineering, nor has she devoted her life to laboratories. While pursuing a degree in political science, she had the opportunity to intern in Washington, D.C., where she got her first taste of space policy.

Since 2018, she has been a public policy analyst in the Science Mission Directorate, where she provides support to the agency’s robotic missions to “explain the why and how” of things. She also assists NASA with correctly following the policies, laws, and regulations that affect these activities.

Eduardo Bendek

Eduardo Bendek
Eduardo Bendek, specialist in optomechanical systems for telescopes in search of exoplanets. Image used with permission by copyright holder

Affiliated with NASA’s Ames Research Center and the Bay Area Environmental Research (BAER) Institute, Eduardo Bendek is a mechanical engineer specializing in astrophysics who graduated from the Catholic University of Chile. He has more than 10 years of experience in the design, integration, and operation of state-of-the-art optomechanical systems for ground- and space-based telescopes.

With a Ph.D. in optical sciences from the University of Arizona, Bendek’s work — which spans adaptive optics, wavefront control, high-contrast imaging, and large off-axis optical systems — has been instrumental in detecting exoplanets from Earth and space. It even earned him NASA’s Exceptional Technological Achievement Medal in 2015.

Among the missions in which he has participated are ACESat, dedicated to imaging exoplanets in the Alpha Centauri star system, and MAP, a microarcsecond probe to detect and measure planets around nearby stars.

Diana Trujillo

Diana Trujillo at NASA
Diana Trujillo leads the Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineering team in charge of the robotic arm of the Perseverance rover. NASA

Diana Trujillo is not only one of the most important scientists of the 21st century and one of the most influential Latinas in technology, but she is also an example of self-improvement for many who leave their countries in search of a better life.

Upon her arrival in the United States at the age of 17, with only $300 to her name and no knowledge of the language, she applied for an internship at the agency after being motivated by the stories of other women who have participated in NASA missions. Upon being selected, she became the first migrant woman of Hispanic origin to be admitted to such a program.

The Colombian aerospace engineer joined NASA in 2008 and since then has participated in several human and robotic space missions, including in a leadership role in the Curiosity mission and the development of the robotic arm of the Perseverance rover. Today, she is flight director of the Mars 2020 mission.

Carlos Fontanot

Carlos Fontanot at NASA
Carlos Fontanot, International Space Station imagery manager. Image used with permission by copyright holder

Inspired by his grandfather, a German immigrant to Mexico who dedicated himself to photography, Fontanot has always been interested in images, both still and moving. Like his grandfather, he migrated to another country, in his case, from Mexico to the United States, where he graduated with a degree in communications (radio, television, and film) from the University of Houston.

In 1990, Fontanot arrived at NASA to help process and oversee the images captured by the STS (Space Transportation System) shuttles. Later, he worked in public relations on Phase 1 of the International Space Station, a job that would lead him to change his residence once again, this time to Moscow, to prepare for the first manned flight to the ISS and transmit those images to the world.

Fontanot has been the International Space Station imagery manager at Johnson Space Center for two decades. He and his team are responsible for managing, cataloging, archiving, and distributing the thousands of fascinating images and videos of Earth that we see every day from the ISS.

Ali Guarneros Luna

Ali Guarneros Luna
Ali Guarneros Luna, contributor to the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. Image used with permission by copyright holder

Perhaps the name of this Mexican woman is not so well-known outside NASA, but her work is no less transcendent. Guarneros Luna’s life story is certainly an inspiring one, as she was able to overcome the most unimaginable challenges to become one of the most important researchers in the United States.

Ali, her mother, and her siblings migrated to the U.S. after the 1985 earthquake that devastated a large part of Mexico City, where she was born. She is currently a full-time collaborator at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, where she arrived in 2010.

Although she had always wanted to be an aerospace engineer, before she could study, she had to work to support her family. Eventually, with four young children to look after, she began her professional training.

In her 30s, Ali Guarneros came to NASA for an internship and never left. Today, she is in charge of developing time- and money-saving technologies, such as low-cost miniature satellites that help future space missions and ISS-related projects.

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