By Milo Buitrago-Casas
Worldwide press headlines announced the successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance Rover on the Red Planet a few weeks ago. This landing marked a new milestone for investigating Mars’ capability for supporting life (as we know it), exploring signatures of the presence of earlier microbes, and testing oxygen production. In addition to the scientific relevance of setting a new rover on Mars, the landing set a benchmark for future NASA communications outreach. Perseverance’s landing was the first-ever event broadcast simultaneously in English and Spanish via oﬃcial NASA social media. Without a doubt, watching a scientific event of this magnitude in our mother language has a profound significance for Latino and Hispanic peoples. It also leads to inquiries into Latin America’s role in scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, particularly in space exploration.
Colombian Diana Trujillo and Ecuadorian Elio Morillo are among the several Latinos aﬃliated with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) working on the Perseverance rover. NASA chose Trujillo to lead the oﬃcial Spanish language transmission of the rover’s landing. An aerospace engineer, she joined NASA back in 2007. Since then, Trujillo has served as the Surface Sampling System Activity Lead and Dust Removal Tool Lead Systems Engineer for programs like Constellation of NASA. Currently, the engineer is the team leader in charge of one of Perseverance’s robotic arms. Trujillo has become an outstanding role model for younger generations, especially for Latinos and women who dream of working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. Hard work, talent, and good opportunities took her to leadership positions at the world’s most remarkable space agency. Like Diana, who came to the U.S. at the age of 17, other talented Latinx children and youth visualize themselves contributing to future scientific breakthroughs. How can they achieve their professional goals when many of them are growing up in communities where high-level education and investment in science are not a priority?
In the coming months, system engineer Elio Morillo will be one of the few “pilots” sending commands to the Mars Helicopter System “Ingenuity,” which is the first device ever designed to fly on the Red Planet. Ingenuity’s primary goals are to demonstrate the feasibility and utility of flying probes on other planets, and to scout locations of interest for Perseverance.
Morillo and Trujillo are two of the very few Latin Americans that, coming to a country with a high level of investment in science like the U.S., can participate in space projects that push the frontier of human knowledge. They both are outstanding engineers, and we celebrate their achievements. However, uncomfortable and inevitable questions arise: Could they have accomplished similar goals if they had stayed in their home countries? What current opportunities are out there for other talented people who do not migrate to the U.S. or other countries with heavily-funded science programs? Ecuador invests 0.4% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in science and technology; Colombia, only 0.28% of its GDP. In contrast, the U.S. invests over US$ 600 billion in research each year (3.1% of its GDP).
For a nation to transition from “developing” to “developed,” it must commit to serious and ongoing investment in both basic and applied science. That commitment can only be achieved with solid political support. Policymakers will care enough about science when science becomes a common topic of interest among the general public. Only then will voters select political leaders with concrete programs involving progress based on science and technology. In this context, role models like Trujillo, Morillo, and other scientists encourage younger generations of Latin Americans to advocate for and participate in scientific progress in their own countries. Those youth are the future voters and scientists. We must ensure that communities that have been historically underrepresented in STEM can reach their highest potential. And Latin American members of the academic community at UC Berkeley have a social responsibility to use all tools available to help our home cities and towns’ scientific transformation.
Milo Buitrago-Casas is a Ph.D. in Physics candidate at the Space Sciences Laboratory – UC Berkeley. His work focuses on space sciences, particularly solar high energies. Milo is part of a team that tests instrumentation for future spacecraft missions to observe the Sun. He is also a board member of Clubes de Ciencia Colombia, a STEM program for youth in Colombia.