A booming sound erupts through Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force space station. With a massive cloud of smoke and a blazing fire roaring behind it, the Atlas V-541 catapulted towards space, carrying the rover family’s newest member, Perseverance. The rover has everything it needs to answer the age-old question, is there life on Mars?

“It’s like punching a hole in the sky,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen.

The Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena is responsible for building the Perseverance rover and its twin OPTIMISM (Operational Perseverance Twin for Integration of Mechanisms and Instruments to Mars). An integral part of the NASA mission, lead systems engineer, Jose Trujillo-Rojas, explains the thrill of making a rover and what this means for humans in the future.

“I was 16 years old when [astronaut] Sandra Magnus visited our school and talked about her experience of being out in space,” said Trujillo. “And I thought it was just amazing.”

He raises his hands in front of him, looks up as if he was reliving the day again, and smiles from ear to ear.

“You know, just having a person that was out in space coming down and visiting our school, that to me was really, you know, mind-blowing,” said Trujillo.

Trujillo has kept in contact with Magnus since his first introduction to her in 2004 and considers her a great mentor. Two more special guests appeared into Trujillo’s life that day. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers’ life-size models’ appearance would spark his curiosity for aerospace engineering and ignited a fuse yet to be extinguished.

“I saw the [rovers] video, and as a 16-year-old kid, I got the chills just running down the back of my spine,” said Trujillo. “I just couldn’t contain myself; it was just so exciting. I told myself I don’t know what that is, but whatever that is, I want to do that for the rest of my life.

Trujillo was the first of his family to graduate from high school, but unfortunately, he did not have the funding to go to college. He was prepared to achieve his dream by any means necessary, and so he joined the Marines a few years after 9/11, a time when it was the most dangerous.

“The question that I asked the recruiter was, am I going to go to war, and he said yes, you most likely are,” said Trujillo. “You know, at that time, I was 17, and I was like, alright, I’m willing to take the risk to make a dream come true.”

Straight out of high school, Trujillo’s enlistment would send him to Mosul, part of Northern Iraq, a place saturated with insurgents, suicide bombings and assassinations. Though there was a war surrounding him, his ultimate goal of working for NASA never left his thoughts.

Fast forward to 2016. It is Trujillo’s first day working at JPL and the beginning of his work on the Mars rovers.

“One of the weirdest things that I find very fascinating was the first day,” said Trujillo. “I walked into the JPL building that I was going to be working at, and there they had the twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which were the rovers that inspired me as a 16-year-old kid. I see the rover standing in front of me, and it’s like being able to come full circle. I mean, it’s one of those things where you say you want to do it, but then it’s actually happening. It still blows my mind.”

Imagine Mars on Earth, a desolate desert, giant boulders, and numerous craters. That is what JPL has created in Pasadena and where Trujillo spends his days working with OPTIMISM. Trujillo and his team heavily focus on pushing OPTIMISM to its limits, replicating movements Perseverance would carry out, such as drilling and collecting rock samples. These tested movements are then sent and recreated by the rover on Mars.

“The rover on Mars is always talking back to us, telling us it’s health and we see what it sees and know its position,” said Trujillo.

As we venture into what is still very much the unknown, the question of life on Mars lingers on the mind. Trujillo explains with enthusiasm that we will find it in one form or another.

“I think if it does find life it will be microbial life,” said Trujillo. “It’s not gonna be like little aliens with fingers and what not, but either way, whatever way it finds life, that’s still mind-blowing.”

According to NASA, one of the main focuses of Perseverance is to “obtain knowledge” for future human expeditions to Mars. Trujillo shares this passion and hopes to be the next astronaut to head to Mars. Looking past the technical side of the mission, Trujillo draws on how the rover can be a symbol of unity.

“I think the great things these rovers are doing is the impact that they’re having here on Earth,” said Trujillo. “When we landed it was a world thing and schools across the nation were watching. It’s been hard this year. The pandemic, civil unrest, but we landed a rover on Mars, right? I think that helped the nations just come together. It’s like, wow, we did something amazing. I think that’s the beauty of these rovers, that it can unite us and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

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