Diana Trujillo, Aerospace Engineer
Men can have the moon. As an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Diana Trujillo is taking us to Mars. Trujillo’s work on the NASA Mars Curiosity Rover mission has given us our first close-up glimpses of Mars and clear evidence that the Red Planet was once capable of supporting life.
Men can have the moon. Aerospace engineer Diana Trujillo is taking us to Mars.
Diana Trujillo, Aerospace Engineer
Aiming for the Stars: Trujillo was born in Cali, Colombia, where a love of space gave her hope on earth. “We’d boil an egg and cut it in half and that was our lunch that day. I remember just laying down on the grass and looking up at the sky and thinking there has to be something out there better than this.” At 17, she left for America to find out.
One Giant Leap for Womankind: During her junior year of college, Trujillo won a spot at NASA Academy. It was a victory that came with culture shock. “I was the first immigrant, Hispanic woman in the program. I was coming in scared, unsure with no confidence whatsoever. I got to meet astronauts, CEOs of companies. None of them looked like me.” That didn’t stop her from being one of only two in her class to be hired by NASA in 2008.
Mission to Mars: Trujillo worked as a telecom engineer on the 2012 Mars Curiosity Rover program. Translation: It was her job to make sure Curiosity could communicate with Earth. When the first images came through, “I could not believe we had done it,” Trujillo recalls. “I am one of the first 30 people in the world to see Mars.“ Today, she’s overseeing a rover tool used in collecting surface samples on the Red Planet.
American Dreamer: Trujillo’s journey from Colombia to Curiosity is the kind of story America was built on. “I am the person that came from another country trying to figure out a better life in a different place and then took that little seed and expanded it to taking the entire human species into the next level of exploration.”
- I am the person that came from another country trying to figure out a better life in a different place, and then took that little seed and expanded it to taking the entire human species into the next level of exploration.
I grew up in Colombia, in Cali. I lived there until I was 17. Growing up, it was a responsibility of the woman to make sure that my dad, my uncle, my grandfather were happy when they would come home, food was on the table, everything was taken care of. My mom was actually the smart one. She was in med school when she met my dad. And then she got pregnant with me and she dropped out. My parents got divorced when I turned 12. After that happened, my mom had nothing. No money. We didn't even have food. And we boil an egg, and then we cut it in half. And that was our lunch that day. I remember just laying down on the grass and looking at the sky and thinking something has to be out there that is better than this, some other species that treats themselves better or values people better.
I literally thought, what's the hardest thing a human being can do? If I could be out there as an astronaut and represent humanity, there was no more bigger honor than that. And when you, Dad, see my life, you're going to realize that we can bring-- we women bring something to the table.
I was the first immigrant Hispanic woman on the program. l got to meet astronauts. I got to meet CEOs of companies. None of them looked like me. And among all of the people that talked to us, there was only one woman. But as I was talking to them, l realized we had a lot of things in common, the way that they thought about the universe and exploration, the way that they thought about humanity. I found my people is kind of what I felt.
Once you come out of the launch vehicle, telecom takes over. Can you hear me, right, is the question that you're wondering, can you hear the Rover? A small job with a lot of impact. Multiple times when we did multiple hours and weeks of testing, it wasn't going smooth enough, and you're wondering, I hope this is working. The fact that we got the first picture, I could not believe we had done it. This is Mars. This is Mars. I am one of the first 30 people in the world to see these pictures of Mars.
The fact that we actually found out that Mars was, at some point, habitable, that leads to the next question: Can we actually find some evidence that there was, at some point, life on Mars? We're going to take a sample with Mars 2020 and put it on a tube to be ready to be returned back to Earth. All of those missions are also thinking about human exploration, all the little pieces that at least we need to figure out for us to even conceive the idea of sending a human. As a little girl, I saw the women in my family give up a lot It gave me the tenacity that I needed to say, I'm not going to give up on my dream. I want to be out there looking back in, showing my family that women have value. That women matter.
DIANA TRUJILLO: Coming to Florida was my first international flight. I remember, I didn't know what I needed to bring, I didn't know what to pack, I was going to fly alone also. But you know, at some point I said I don't care, this is going to be my ticket out of all of this.
This is reinforcing the fact that this is not where I need to be right now. I need to do something else for my mom, for my grandma, for my and all of those women behind me who had to submit themselves. There were strong women, and at the same time they were counted as less when they were compared with men.
So I had the genes in my mind, I had the genes of I can make this work. I need to stand up for myself. I need to make sure that I'm not depending on somebody, and that my success or whatever I was going to do in my life was not going to get stopped by somebody else's mood.
DIANA TRUJILLO: I think that what really, really defines me is the fact that I am drawn to problems. So if there is an issue, that's where I want to be. If somebody's having a hard time with some specific equipment or in between the team members, that's where I want to be. I don't like to be in the situation where everything is going smoothly, we're cruising, everything is going peachy. That's not me. I will get bored.
DIANA TRUJILLO: I started dreaming about space even when I was back in Columbia, right? I remember trying to escape myself, at least mentally from all of that environment and just laying down on the grass and looking at the sky and thinking, something has to be out there that is better than this. I said, you know what? That's what I want to be.
I want to be out there, looking back in, showing my family that women have value. I'm representing females. I'm representing women. I'm representing how awesome we are. Maybe that will make my dad and my uncles and my grandfather and my society realize we are more than just the person in the kitchen.
DIANA TRUJILLO: I know that a lot of people look at aggressive as an adjective of, oh my god, I don't want to deal with that person. You know, you think almost like the lion is going to come in and attack the little prey. And that's not what aggressive means.
Honestly, to me, what aggressive means is the fact that you have a really well defined plan that you're going after, and that plan doesn't necessarily need to be for your own benefit. That could be the plan for the mission. That could be the plan for the team. And yes, you should be aggressive about going for a plan, for example, in my job, aggressive to actually hit the target on the surface of Mars, to make sure that we discover if there was life in another planet. Why wouldn't you want to be aggressive for that?
- Stick to your guns if you really want to make that change. No matter what's actually happening around you or who's telling you you are not prepared for it, you need to remember that is the goal that you want to do, and you will not change your mind.
DIANA TRUJILLO: The accomplishment that I am most proud of is the fact that I am an immigrant. To me, I am proud of that because that's who I am. I am the person that came from another country trying to figure out a way, a better life in a different place, and then took that little seed and expanded it to taking the entire humanity, the human species, into the next level of exploration. So all of that started with this immigrant that had no idea how to speak English. So I am proud of the fact that I came from that and I have gotten where I am.
DIANA TRUJILLO: Somebody mentioned to me that I should enjoy the journey and not so much as to what my target was. So I think that sitting back and reflecting on how important my life is now and how important my life was in the past, as well, is what gave me some perspective as to starting to enjoy the journey and not just the destination.
- What are the three adjectives that best describe me? I will say stubborn, [LAUGHING] which that will be persistent. And I think also I would say the rebel of the house. So although it sounds negative, it sounds like oh, you were the rebel, the stubborn the one that nobody wanted to deal with because you would stick to your guns, it actually paid off for me.
DIANA TRUJILLO: I have this very vivid moment where, in chemistry, actually, I will finish my chemistry exams. And there's this specific exam that I did, and then I got up, like, 10 minutes later, and my professor is, like, uh, it was harder than 10 minutes. Go check it.
And he checked it right there, and then he pulled up a paper, and wrote a new problem for me, and give it to me, and I did an extra problem, and I handed it off to him. And I remember going home and being extremely happy about the fact that I had found out that I was good at something, and that somebody else had validated that for me.
DIANA TRUJILLO: I still want to be an astronaut. I'm still shooting for that target. And I think that the difference is that right now I am enjoying my journey as a lead to the Mars Curiosity rover. I am enjoying my journey as a mother, as a wife, a daughter, right? Recognizing that I have multiple jobs, and it is not just one-- and that if I can excel at all of them and find the right balance, I can be that human being that I actually want to be if I ever make it to space and represent humanity.