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Meet the Fil-Am Engineer Who Helped Land the NASA Rover on Mars

He says his foundation in Physics and Math was all thanks to his high school alma mater in Baguio City.

Over the last 63 years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been continuously delving into space exploration. Its Space Shuttle Program, International Space Station (ISS), Apollo flights— one of which (Apollo 11)— have been making headlines for decades. And despite its various successes over the years, NASA is still not stopping with its space exploration programs.

One of their notable exploration programs to date is the Mars Exploration Program (MEP), which aims to explore the Red Planet— from its natural resources to its habitability and ability to support life. And just recently, the program made international headlines when the Perseverance Rover successfully landed on the surface of Mars. (Read: DLSU develops astronaut spacesuits lined with Philippine abaca)

NASA Perseverance Rover

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“The moment that my team dreamed of for years, now a reality. Dare mighty things.” (Photo from NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover Facebook)

The Perseverance Rover, which was launched on July 30, 2020, finally landed on Mars’s Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. According to the MEP website, Perseverance’s job is to “seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) for possible return to Earth.”

The newest rover also carried a “Mars helicopter” called ‘Ingenuity’ to the planet, in the hopes of making history by being the first powered flight on another planet. (Read: PH Team Wins NASA Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge)

“[It] is a technology demonstration to test powered flight on another world for the first time,” NASA explained. And if it succeeds, it will be a milestone because Mars has an “extremely thin atmosphere,” which makes it all the more difficult to fly.

Filipino Pride

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Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Gregory Galgana Villar III is one of the Operations Systems Engineers on the Mars Science Laboratory. (Photo from Patch)

But for Filipinos, it’s not just the Mars landing itself that makes it a proud moment for us. That’s because there is a Filipino-American (Fil-Am) on the Mars Exploration team! Gregorio Villar is an Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who helped land Perseverance on Mars.

In his profile page on the MEP website, it says that one of his contributions to the program is being the “head verification and validation engineer in the EDL phase.” (Read: 5 Filipinos Who Made Names in NASA and Space-Related Fields)

Villar is a graduate of Physics from the California State Polytechnic University and has a Masters Degree in Astronautical Engineering from the University of Southern California. But before college, the engineer studied at Saint Louis University – Laboratory High School in Baguio City.

According to him, his foundation in Physics and Math was all thanks to his high school alma mater. Back then, he would represent the school in competitions in Math and Science as he showed great aptitude in those fields.

His Dream Job

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A former JPL intern, Gregory Galgana Villar III (shown here in JPL’s mission control room) is now one of the youngest verification and validation engineers for the Mars Science Laboratory mission scheduled to launch on Nov. 26, 2011. (Photo from NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In his NASA profile, Villar said that when he was young, he dreamt of becoming an astronaut, and his interest in space was further fuelled by movies like “Armageddon” and “Apollo 13.”

And in 2010, he achieved it (in a way) when he was awarded a NASA scholarship and internship, and was hired to become a full-time employee at the agency in 2012! (Read: 5 Filipinos Who Made Names in NASA and Space-Related Fields)

“I have a whole spreadsheet of things I love about working at JPL, but the number one thing is the people I work with,” he says about his job. Villar adds that the most “extraordinary” thing he’s done in his career thus far is being able to lead a parachute testing in the world’s largest wind tunnel.

Asked what words of wisdom he can impart to young people who dream of being in the same field as him, Villar says, “Although it is a cliche, it is very important to pursue something you love. I have worked at JPL for over 12 years, and there is rarely a day that I feel like I am going to “work.”

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