Alumnus and NASA engineer shares experience launching a Mars rover

It all started with a job fair at Cal Poly Pomona for alumnus Luis Dominguez (’09, mechanical engineering). The first company to call him for an interview was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where he now works as a mechanical engineer and was involved in launching the Mars “Perseverance” rover last month.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dominguez’s team faced limitations in their work when working on the Mars rover project. Under normal circumstances, the Assembly Test and Launch Operations (ATLO) team operated in a sterile environment and required each team member to wear a full-body suit and a face mask to prevent biological contamination. The challenge posed by the pandemic, however, was the allotted time each team had to work on their portion of the project. Due to a mandatory intermission between each team, all divisions had a strict time limit and could not work past those scheduled times.

The project, which took around five years to complete, required all team members to invest an extensive amount of time.

“It’s quite brutal,” Dominguez said. “You spend a lot of time at work, very little time at home and very little time to socialize.” He recalled his longest shift spanning 16 hours.

Despite the hard work and the long hours, it was all worth it for Dominguez when he finally saw the rover on the rocket ready for launch.

The purpose of the Perseverance rover is to explore the planet of Mars for ancient life by collecting rocks and soil. Through this project, NASA hopes to find out whether the planet is suitable for astronauts to temporarily work and live in. Its launch day was July 30 and is expected to land on Feb. 18, 2021.

Alumnus Luis Dominguez (’09, mechanical engineering) works as a mechanical engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Courtesy of Luis Dominguez)

Dominguez, who was raised in South Central Los Angeles, has been interested in aerospace engineering since his teenage years. However, during high school, one of his teachers explained that mechanical engineering could open more possibilities for him. “I’d have more flexibility in work,” Dominguez said, explaining his teacher’s advice. “I wouldn’t be restricted to just the aerospace industry.”

After deciding that mechanical engineering was the right fit for him, he applied to CPP in 2005.

During his third year at CPP, Dominguez attended a job fair in hopes of securing an internship but ended up receiving a greater opportunity. At the career fair, he met with a JPL recruiter, who later called him for a phone interview. Shortly after, he was offered an internship.

“Growing up I never knew what JPL was,” Dominguez said. “When they called me, I quickly looked them up to see what they actually did, and I was like ‘Oh wow, this is pretty cool.’”

On his first day as an intern, he was assigned to work with the ATLO team in the Mars Science Laboratory, which launched in 2011.

He remembers walking into a room where there were hand-drawn images of harnesses used to lift engineers to the top of the rocket. “When I got there, they were like ‘Your first job is going to be to turn all of those drawings that you see up on the wall into actual drawings so we can build these harnesses,’” Dominguez said.

From day one as an intern, his skills in mechanical and electrical engineering were put to the test and sharpened as he continued working with the team on the project.

After graduating, Dominguez was hired at NASA and had the opportunity to work on various projects. When working on the recently launched Mars rover project, his experience working on similar assignments during his internship became a big advantage, he said.

The next project he will be working on is called Psyche. This project involves sending an orbiter around the asteroid belt to analyze the asteroids for a remanence of a new planet formation.

For those wanting to work at NASA, Dominguez offers a few words of advice: “Be courageous, be curious, be tenacious and have a healthy dose of altruism.”

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