As a young girl growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Rosa Obregon would sit in the back seat of her parents’ car as they took long drives to visit family across the border in Monterrey, Mexico. With her head perched on the window, she’d gaze up at the nighttime sky…and wonder. “I’d look at the skies and see all the stars,” Obregon, now 30, recalls. “And it really piqued my interest.” Her dreamy curiosity wasn’t lost on her father, who soon bought Obregon a telescope so she could look more closely at all that twinkled in the sky.
It was, to say the least, a prophetic purchase. Today Obregon, the lead mechanical engineer at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the nation’s largest rocket engine test facility, is the only Latina at the site with clearance to test rocket engines. Translation: she’s a real life rocket scientist. Specifically, Obregon tests engines and components for commercial space flights. As in flights that might one day allow us mere mortals to fly to space. It is, for sure, a new frontier in space exploration that promises to ease NASA’s budget by as much as $100 million per launch, while increasing research opportunities for scientists and private industry.
All of which makes Obregon a bit of a space pioneer. On any given day, you might find her researching more efficient insulation materials. Or figuring out how to test fire a rocket vertically — instead of horizontally, as is the norm. “We had to dig a hole into the ground and go below the surface,” Obregon recalls. What she most enjoys about her work: Seeing a project through, from concept to completion. She also gets to collect special memorabilia along the way, like fragments from a control valve test she conducted that astronauts from a Hubble spacecraft mission took into space. “They actually handed us a certificate with those momentos,” says Obregon, who keeps the pieces in her office.
The eldest of three children to Jorge, an electrician, and Rosa, a customer service agent, Obregon says she’s always loved math and science and anything visual. In fact, her first-grade teacher, Sylvia Gonzalez, taught her to do math using a dot system similar to the ancient Mayan technique that relies on dots and bars as a shorthand for counting. “I still use that same system when I am adding up in my head,” says Obregon. “It’s very visual.” By the fifth grade, Rosa was attending a gifted student program and she later graduated from high school as the class valedictorian. Her acceptance to MIT, where she studied aerospace engineering with a humanitarian concentration in theatre arts, might have seemed inevitable to her school teachers and classmates, but it stunned her parents. “When you grow up in a culture where you are not supposed to leave the house until you are married and you are the firstborn and you are leaving the house before 18, yeah…” says Obregon, her voice trailing at the memory. It took a visit to the school for her mom, also named Rosa, to see that “the campus is secure and there are other Latinos at MIT and how I just felt very comfortable out there.”
As soon as she graduated, she went to work for NASA, where she’d also completed an internship program while she was still in school. The seven years that have since passed have been the journey of a lifetime, she says. A journey that, for now, will remain on earth. She insists she’s happy working behind the scenes to ensure successful space missions for others. “I think I’ll stay on the ground,” she says, “and help people get there.”
Now living just one hour from New Orleans — and a day’s drive from her hometown of Corpus Christi — Obregon says she gets to see her family more often than when she was in college. Pausing to reflect on how culture has influenced her success, she points to her parents’ example. “The hard work,” she says. “Knowing that it’s going to have its ups and downs, but in the end it will be worth it.”