Zaida Hernandez – a NASA engineer, Latina, and STEM advocate
“I am a first-generation American in the US. My family is originally from El Salvador, C.A. Born and raised in Houston, TX, NASA was always a place I admired but not a place where I pictured minorities especially Latina women working. Since childhood, I have always had a fascination with space. On family trips to El Salvador, I would try to count all of the stars in the night sky! When I was a senior in high school, I applied for a NASA internship, something I thought might be a bit out of reach but my love for space wanted me to take a chance. Little did I know that it would change my life. I was accepted and I fell in love with the space industry. My career goal became working at NASA as an engineer and I can proudly say that I was able to reach that goal. I feel very fortunate to work at NASA and I work to guide others who are interested in STEM and/or working in the aerospace industry. I love to participate in STEM outreach events and speak to students about the importance of careers in STEM. I recently published a bilingual children’s colouring book called Space Espacio because I believe biculturalism is important and representation in literacy matters. I want to help bridge a gap in STEM resources for bilingual children. I graduated from the University of Houston with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering. I continued my studies there and obtained a Master’s in Industrial Engineering. I work at NASA full-time as an engineer and subsystem lead. I’ve support projects including the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), a rover going to the moon in 2023 and the Artemis Program conducting thermal analysis and subsystem management for the Orion capsule that will take the next woman and next man to the moon!” – @zaidatx
Here is Zaida in a conversation with GOGO Magazine.
1) What’s your department like and its objective?
I work in the engineering department at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, USA. NASA’s mission is to “Lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and bring new knowledge and opportunities back to Earth. Support growth of the nation’s economy in space and aeronautics, increase understanding of the universe and our place in it, work with industry to improve America’s aerospace technologies and advance American leadership.” My role is to work as a spacecraft engineer supporting the Artemis Program which will be taking us back to the moon. Because we work on human spacecraft including vehicles and spacesuits, safety is extremely important to us and we want to make sure that our systems are reliable and robust.
2) Some of our readers requested an elaborated procedure about requirements and how one can prepare themself so that they can work for NASA too?
Yes, I get this question a lot and it is not a one size fits all. I think there are many people that think there is a “best” major or “best school” but there isn’t. The majority of opportunities are for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) majors and there are some opportunities for non-STEM like business and even for doctors. Each centre and position can have its own set of requirements but I can speak for some of the student opportunities which are great ways to get a foot in the door at NASA. One example is a partnership with the International Space University (ISU) – Through an agreement ISU, students currently enrolled in the ISU’s Master of Space Studies (MSS) program or the Master of Space Management (MSM) program may apply to work on NASA projects and/or research of benefit to NASA at selected NASA centres, based on availability. ISU-selected students will be assigned to a selected NASA centre for a period of 3-6 months to work on projects agreed to by NASA. Another example is the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab has a Visiting Student Research Program which is open to U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents (LPRs) and foreign nationals. Students complete designated projects outlined by their mentors, gaining educational experience in their fields of study while also contributing to NASA and JPL missions and science. https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern/apply/visiting-student-research-program/
3) What are the exciting and fun factors about your job?
There are a lot of cool factors about my job. Personally, I love going to testing sites because I get to see the spacecraft and items that will be going to space. Johnson Space Center is where the astronauts train so we have a lot of very interesting facilities like one building where we have a replica of the International Space Station and you are able to walk around and see the different modules and occasionally see astronauts doing real-time training.
4) If you would explain in one word the feeling after every successful mission. What would be that?
Accomplishment. There is a great feeling of accomplishment after every mission. Many people have worked on these projects for hours and a lot of investments have been made so it is very rewarding when missions go as planned.
5) What are the future missions for planetary studies like any upcoming future Mars exploration program or other planets, you are working on?
There are many NASA centres around the US and my centre specifically focuses on human spaceflight which currently is for the moon and in a few years will be focused on getting to Mars. I was part of a team developing a rover that will be going to the south pole of the moon in 2023. I am now on another team that is working on lunar vehicles for astronauts. Specifically, that one is called Lunar Terrain Vehicle. But I’m very excited about some of the planetary missions you mentioned like Dragonfly going to the surface of one of Saturns moons.
6) What do you think about Tesla’s space missions?
I think in the past few years there is a new, growing interest in the space industry and there are many commercial companies that are now building rockets and planning space missions. I think this is wonderful and the more options there are to go to space, the more accessible space will be for humans (non-astronauts) in the future.
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