A few years ago, I was working at an all-girls elementary school as a teacher. During Halloween, I was asked to do a sort of performance portraying Alyssa Carson, a college student and space enthusiast who has been preparing for many years to be one of the first humans to set foot on Mars.
The idea of the performance was to show our students that they could go far and achieve anything they dreamed of. To do this, I dressed in blue, printed NASA logos, and glued them to my clothes with a glue stick.
I asked my five-year-old students to sit on the floor, forming a circle around me and told them the story of the red planet. The students were absolutely amazed. I still remember one of them who, with her eyes sparkling, was still asking me days later excitedly how I was doing with my plans to go to Mars.
Enter Zaida Hernandez
The day I met Zaida Hernandez, the eyes of those girls came back to me. Zaida is now 29 years old, but as I talked with her, I could imagine her as a child, discovering the mysteries of the universe with excitement.
When Zaida was six or seven years old, she first traveled to El Salvador, and that’s when her love of space began. The overly lit Houston sky she grew up under did not allow her to observe the clear, fully initiated sky she got to witness in El Salvador. So, when she finally saw it for the first time, the experience was a breakthrough.
As a child, Zaida was a book nerd — as she describes herself — who enjoyed reading and drawing all the time. During the last year, she took advantage of the free time the pandemic lockdown gave her to write and draw the illustrations for her bilingual children’s book “Space/Espacio.” It is a book that seems to speak to her inner child, a book that I am sure my students would have loved. When she first became interested in space, Zaida told me, she didn’t have access to many books for readers her age, let alone the idea of finding bilingual books. Even today, when the world of informational books for children has expanded so much, Zaida Hernández still finds big gaps in the STEM department.
When we spoke, she was already working on her second children’s book, although all she could reveal was that she was working with a Latino publisher and that someone else would be drawing this time.
The dream of touching the stars
When Zaida was beginning to consider studying architecture or engineering during high school, one of her teachers told her about NASA’s internship program. At the time — as is often the case when you are a teenager — she loved space, but she didn’t know how to turn that love into a life project. Being an intern and shadowing engineers gave her a direct perspective on how her dreams could become a lifestyle. She pursued a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Houston and then a master’s program in industrial engineering.
During her years at NASA — first as an intern and now as an employee — Zaida has seen changes in the representation of women and Latinos. When she started working as a fellow in 2009, her department had 15 men and only two women. In the group where she now works, the ratio of men to women has gone to 15 men and five women, which is not perfect, but it is a significant improvement. In addition, the principal director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, is a woman: Vanessa Wyche.
This change inspires Zaida Hernández to work on the outreach activities she is involved in when she is not working on the technical aspects of returning to the Moon. Her second book is part of these efforts.
Currently, Zaida works at Therman Design as part of the Artemis Project, whose goal is to land the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024. Her involvement in the project has included participation in the development of a lunar rover and the design of the thermal control system.
Hopefully, the work of Zaida, Vanessa, and other amazing women at NASA — such as Colombia’s Diana Trujillo, who works on the robotic arms of Mar’s Perseverance rover — will give other girls the push they seek to chase their dreams to the stars.