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NASA’s "Mars Czar" Is Puerto Rican

June 20, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Is there life on Mars?

This question has excited and motivated NASA’s stargazers ever since they first looked into the sky to glimpse the fourth planet from our Sun. Since the first close-up pictures taken of the Red Planet in 1965, researchers and NASA engineers have made quantum leaps in their understanding of Mars. Today, they inch ever closer to answering one of the galaxy’s most guarded mysteries: did life ever exist on Mars and – if so – did it contribute to the beginnings of life on earth?

Heading the NASA Mars program since 2001 is Dr. Orlando Figueroa, a world-renowned engineer with roots in Puerto Rico. From his office in Washington, he directs a team of NASA employees, contractors and consultants numbering in the thousands and administers the program’s 500-million dollars annual budget. As Director of Robotic Exploration, Dr. Figueroa oversees all activities and research for all Mars missions and is the man directly responsible for the ultimate success or failure of each. Such overall authority has earned him the moniker of "Mars Czar." He refers to NASA’s exploration of Mars as "the most impressive scientific assault on a planet since the Apollo era."

In early June, 2003, under the watchful eye of Dr. Figueroa, NASA fired a spacecraft into a trajectory towards Mars, ultimately to deliver a "Mars Exploration Rover" onto the Red Planet after an seven-month flight. Near the end of June, 2003, a companion launch will carry another Rover towards the opposite side of the Martian surface and each will spend ninety days at pre-determined locations on the barren terrain. Rovers are described as "robotic geologists" able to identify elements with built in microscopes and spectrometers and equipped to pick up and bore into rocks. Energized by solar panels, the Rovers have six retractable wheels, mechanical arms and a panoramic stereo camera. Their observations and measurements of mineral formations and fossil remains will be transmitted to NASA satellites orbiting Mars and made available to investigators the world over.

In an interview with the Herald before the two launches, "The Czar" explained the importance of Mars investigation and why the work of the Rovers is so important. "Right now, Mars is pristine, not influenced by human contaminants. Therefore, we have an opportunity to look at the key variables of its environment. We know that, at some point, it had a magnetic field somewhat similar to ours that protected its surface from the sun’s lethal radiation. But it went away. What happened? We know that there is ice on Mars, but was it ever in a liquid state? If there was water, energy and nutrients, life could have taken hold."

The road that took Dr. Figueroa to his position at NASA began in San Juan, Puerto Rico where he was born on September 9, 1955, and where his primary and secondary education took place. After obtaining a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez in 1978, he completed advanced graduate studies in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maryland.

After graduation, Dr. Figueroa immediately set his sights on fulfilling his childhood dream: to work for NASA, anywhere he could find a place in the space program. His first opportunity came quickly, when he accepted a position at Goddard Space Center, outside of Washington, D.C. While at Goddard, he served as a member of the mechanical integration and test team performing complex investigations into the physics of outer space. He was head of the Cryogenics Technology Section in the Space Technology Division and project manager for the Superfluid Helium on Orbit Transfers Experiment.

His last post at Goddard, as Director of Systems, Technology and Advanced Concepts, made him responsible for the development of space flight mission systems, advanced concepts, and technology developments for Earth orbiting missions. While at Goddard, Dr. Figueroa was awarded the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal. In 1996, he was appointed to the Senior Executive Service of the US Government. He is also a member of the International Academy of Astronautics.

Then in 2000, Dr. Figueroa made the move to NASA headquarters in Washington, where he has focused on the Mars Exploration Program ever since. Describing that program, he told the Herald, "We want to understand Mars, as a system, its atmosphere, its geology, its interior. We want to know if life ever took hold on Mars or whether it still exists. Such a discovery would be paradigm changing … we also hope, at some point, to bring humans to Mars, so that clearly understanding the planet is important so that humans may one day go there safely."

Orlando Figueroa’s tenure as director of the ambitious Mars Program comes at a critical time for NASA. In 1999, well before his association with the project, two Mars probes failed and, earlier this year, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry into the earth’s atmosphere, causing the loss of its entire crew. Investigation into that accident is still ongoing and the entire American manned space program is on hold. NASA is sorely in need of success and is looking to the Mars program to provide it.

Dr. Figueroa deflects questions about pressure. He is focused on pulling together all of the many elements that go into a Mars probe. He spends some time at his desk but more traveling to the various locations where the science and engineering take place. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California is where all of the Mars probe engineering takes place. Scores of contractors around the country supply parts and equipment for the Rovers and the robots are launched from the Kennedy Space Flight Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

With one successful launch down and one to go, he is confident. Additionally, he looks beyond this and other missions planned for surveying the Red Planet. He is eloquent about the benefits derived from space exploration for earthlings. "I can site hundreds of examples of how NASA’s engineering has influenced the field of medicine, of engineering, of communication. Our research has led to the development of new materials, of robotics, of miniaturization. The list goes on and on."

It would seem that the Mars Program and Orlando Figueroa are perfect for each other. He summed it up succinctly, "I have the best job in NASA and in the world."


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