Meet Diana Trujillo, the Colombian Who Hunts Life on Mars

Diana Trujillo BELatina Latinx
Photo Credit video 2019 Makers Conference

Last week NASA began its new phase of exploration on the red planet with the launch of its Mars 2020 mission. The program brought the Perseverance robot to the surface of the fourth planet in the solar system.

Last Thursday at 7:50 a.m. ET, the rover blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, as explained by National Geographic, on what will be a seven-month interplanetary journey to Jezero Crater, the site of an ancient crater lake and an erstwhile river delta that the rover will scour for signs of past Martian life.

Perseverance will travel 65 million miles for 6-7 months before it lands on the red planet. It will also have a sidekick, Ingenuity, a Mars helicopter that will be the first to attempt to fly on another planet.

In the front row of the team on the ground was Colombian Diana Trujillo, head of the engineering team of Perseverance’s robotic arm and in charge of a group of 15 people responsible for the development of the vehicle’s key instruments.

“It’s kind of like we are looking for fossils but not really,” Trujillo told KSAT. “You go back to where the minerals are, you go back to where the mud is and see if there is any biosignature at a very micro level. That shows you that there was water, and if there was water, there were carbons and other things that show you there was life at some point.”

Trujillo said that evidence would help test important technology for future human exploration.

“We also have an instrument on Perseverance. It’s the moxy instrument. Moxy is actually generating Oxygen on the surface of Mars,” Trujillo said. “If you think about that, we are doing baby steps of what it takes to keep a human alive on the surface of Mars.”

Born in 1980 in Cali, Colombia, Trujillo attended Colegio Bilingüe Internacional Cañaverales while working as a domestic worker to save money so she could emigrate and continue her higher education.

With only $300 in her pocket, she immigrated to the United States after turning 17. She began taking English classes at Miami Dade College, still working as a housekeeper to pay for her studies.

Her revelation moment was when she found a magazine that exalted the role of women who have worked at NASA says the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo.

Trujillo noted that most of them were involved in aerospace engineering and medical careers: “I knew that even though I didn’t speak English well, my math was very good, so I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

And that’s when she made the second big decision of her life: “I felt old, because in the United States people finish college between the ages of 21 and 23, and I was going to finish at 26. That sounds normal now, but at that time, my biggest approach to computers had been school classes, with 20 minutes a week in front of computers without internet,” Trujillo recalled.

Her efforts earned her the trust of teachers and mentors who encouraged her to apply to the NASA Academy, where she was accepted and became the first Hispanic immigrant woman in the program.

She stood out for her skills and results in the program and ended up being one of only two people in her Academy cohort to get a full-time job at NASA.

It was then that she met Professor Brian Roberts. He invited her to join his department at the University of Maryland to develop the technical aspects of robots operating in space.

“By moving to the University of Maryland, I was a year behind in my career, but it was worth it because I managed to get into the NASA education department as the Academy’s operations manager,” she told El Tiempo.

After graduating from the institute in aerospace engineering in 2007, she joined the NASA team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in the Constellation program and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on human and robotic space missions.

One of her most significant accomplishments was on the Curiosity operational safety team that developed the dust removal tool that helps scientists explore Mars’ surface.

Since 2014, Trujillo has been among the 20 most influential Latinos in the technology industry, but he continues to seek new challenges.

“After several years in Curiosity, and the mission was a success, I started to feel that everything was flowing and everything was going very well. I had just had my two children, and I felt that if everything was going so smoothly, it was because I wasn’t making an effort. I need to face new challenges all the time. And that’s how I decided to move on to Perseverance.”

Trujillo told how his arrival on the team was driven by the need for someone to solve the many obstacles the mission was facing. Between liquid leaks, contaminant control, and the COVID-19 pandemic, their mission was almost always in check.

However, she persisted, and they managed to carry out the first mission with remote examinations of the robot’s mechanics.

“It was very stressful: everyone is at their computer talking on the phone with more than ten people describing what they see. It’s an operation with your eyes closed,” he explained. “Everyone’s trying to have a say, trying to help. Sometimes we didn’t even listen to each other. At times I had to raise my voice and speak up. You’re there, you don’t want to be rude, but you have to find a way to end it. In the end, it all worked out, and I couldn’t believe it.”

At this time, Trujillo is the leader of the surface testing operations program and is considered one of the most influential women and Latinas in the technology industry.