Fernando Abilleira is a Latino engineer who helped design the successful launch and landing of the Curiosity rover. (Photo/Courtesy NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

An aeronautical engineer sees his dreams take flight with Mars landing

He’s hardly slept for days, but Fernando Abilleira doesn’t mind, because the landing of NASA’s multi-billion dollar rover on Mars means that his life-long dream has been realized.

“This is spectacular, absolutely amazing,” says Abilleira, a trajectory analyst and Mission Engineer for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. For the last nine years, the 35-year-old has worked as part of an elite team to build what many consider the most complex machine ever invented.

The moment when Curiosity – a rover the size of a small compact car – landed on the Red Planet was one for the history books. After an eight-month long journey comprising 352 million miles, Curiosity neatly parked at Gale Crater in the wee hours of the morning on Monday. It has since begun transmitting a series of riveting 3D photos of a peak called Mount Sharp that offers American scientists their very first glimpse of an entirely new world.

“The place we are going to is incredible, a huge crater that used to be filled with water but that has receded over time, with a sedimentary layer so we can begin to read history,” explains Abilleira, who was born in Madrid, Spain. “The fact that that specific area may have supported life in the past or the present makes our mission of searching for organics – the building blocks of life – fascinating.”

The exciting search for life elsewhere in the universe has fueled Abilleira’s ambition for nearly as long as he can remember. As a child, he was always captivated by space, transfixed by the grainy footage of space shuttle launches on television.

“I was always very curious about the universe and very early decided that with hard work and dedication, I could realize my dreams of working on a Mars mission,” says Abilleira, who received a full scholarship to study aerospace engineering and orbital mechanics at St. Louis University. He became star student and while still in college, Abilleira was named a finalist in an academic competition held by The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He quickly gained exposure with his ground-breaking ideas on how to optimize flight to Mars and was in his early 20’s when he landed a spot at NASA’s Jet Proplusion Laboratory.

As a lead member of a team charged with designing Curiosity’s launch, Abilleira created an exhaustive list of constraints that could possibly affect the rover’s chances of anything less than a stellar takeoff. He spent countless hours analyzing Mars dust storm data, reviewing the rover’s speed capability, and examining geometry equations – all in a gargantuan effort to design a perfect rover launch and landing. Thanks to him, NASA can now claim to have created a successful unmanned rover exploration that will help its mission to send astronauts to Mars within the next few decades.

“I’m just as excited as a child when it comes to learning more about space,” says Abilleira who is father to a five-year-old boy and three-year-old twin sons.

“But at the end of the day, I hope to pass on my love of space and inspire younger generations to achieve in math, science and physics. The sky is really the limit for them.”

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