Gregorio Villar: Part of Mars 2020 History

by Ellon Labana


by Henrylito D. Tacio

Photo courtesy of NASA

History was made on February 18 when Perseverance finally touched down on Mars after a dramatic landing that had been described as the “seven minutes of terror.”

“Perseverance – fondly known as Percy – landed with ‘eyes open’ taking images of the surface to choose its landing spot,” Natalie Grover and Tom McCarthy wrote for The Guardian.  “Weighing more than a ton, it landed nearly in the middle of the landing zone within the 28 mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero crater north of the planet’s equator.”

Perseverance is a rover made by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  It is the space agency’s ninth mission and the fifth rover to land on the cold, dry, red planet.  The mission: to roam around Mars’s surface and search for signs of ancient microbial life for two years.

Photo courtesy of NASA

“I’m amazed that everything went pretty much according to plan,” Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting director, told the media after the landing. “When I heard the touchdown signal come back and saw the first image, I cannot tell you how to overcome with emotion I was and how happy I was.”

While the world is celebrating the success of Perseverance, the US Embassy in the Philippines announced the participation of Engineer Gregorio Villar in the preparation of the landing of the US$2.7 billion, car-sized, six-wheeled rover.

Villar may not ring a bell to most Filipinos but he is “part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program as Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) Systems Engineer of the Mars 2020 mission.”

“As part of the Mars 2020 Mission, Villar spent 7.5 years building and testing a system that will land a car-sized rover on Mars,” the embassy explained.  “He also directed a Mars parachute test campaign at the world’s largest wind tunnel.”

In addition, he led a council of atmospheric scientists, from institutions around the world, to characterize the Martian atmosphere.

What’s so special with Villar?  Nothing, except that he is a Filipino-American.  In fact, he attended the Laboratory High School at Saint Louis University in Baguio City.

He took his bachelor’s degree in physics at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.  His Master’s degree in astronautical engineering was from the University of Southern California.

It was Hollywood movies that inspired him to be interested in space and science.  In NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, Villar listed these movies: Contact, Apollo 13, Armageddon, and Independence Day.

Even when he was still in elementary school, he pictured himself of growing up into an astronaut.

But how did he end up working for NASA?  It was by accident when he was awarded a NASA scholarship in his junior year in college.  They had an internship at a NASA center of his choice.  He started interning at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 2010 and got hired full-time in 2012.

Photo courtesy of NASA

When asked about his favorite thing about the work he does, he replied: “I have a whole spreadsheet of things I love about working at JPL, but the number one thing is the people I work with.”

So far, the most extraordinary experience he had done so far at NASA was when he led a parachute test campaign in the world’s largest wind tunnel.  But what excites him the most about Mars or space exploration was “the thought of going there myself one day.”

The Fil-American engineer has ordinary hobbies just like anyone else: travel, climb, chess, magic, music, and poker.

His advice to students who are interested in a similar career: “Although it is a cliché, it is very important to pursue something you love.  I have worked at JPL for over 12 years, and there is rarely a day I feel like I am going to work.’” 

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