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NASA Engineer Diana Trujillo Is Out Of This World

What an inspiration!

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An image of NASA engineer Diana Trujillo.
Michael Lewis
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En español | Growing up in Cali, Colombia, in the ’80s, Diana Trujillo’s life was full of turmoil and uncertainty. Violence was tearing her country apart; drugs, poverty and violence plagued her neighborhood. Simply going to school necessitated lessons in gunshot recognition and kidnapping avoidance, and her parents taught her how to drive at age 12 in case she “ever had to jump in a car and get away fast.” On top of all of this, her parents’ relationship was deteriorating.

The day after graduating high school, Trujillo, the oldest of three, immigrated to the United States — alone. She was 17 years old, and — then in Miami — spoke no English and had $300 in her pocket. Her dream: to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“Growing up, everything around me was chaotic,” she recalls, “so I’d look to space for an escape. Space seemed so peaceful. I knew the NASA logo, and knew that everybody who worked there was super smart. I wanted to be smart, to achieve big things and learn about space. Space was my far-fetched dream, my exit strategy.”

Trujillo worked as a housekeeper while taking English as a Second Language classes. She attended community college, and then earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland. In 2008, she began working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on robotic and human space missions. (One highlight: developing a tool that removes red dust from Mars’ surface to allow the Curiosity rover to collect planetary samples.)

Today, at 36, the pioneering Latina and mother of two — she has a baby and a 3-year-old with her husband, also in aerospace — serves as surface sampling system activity lead for robotic arm science for the Mars 2020 mission. When she’s not speaking out about increasing STEM opportunities for girls or joining her boys on imaginary trips to Jupiter in “rocket ships” made from Amazon boxes that originally held diapers, her job is “to try to find life on the surface of Mars. I have the honor of attempting to answer the question, ‘Are we alone? Is there life out there?’ ”

She chatted with The Girlfriend from her hometown of Los Angeles about letting her geek flag fly.

Who inspires you?

My cubicle at work is decorated with photos of my family … and Serena Williams! I feel like I understand what she’s had to do, how she’s had to battle her way to the top. She came from Compton; she didn’t have anything. Everybody in the tennis world was, like, ‘What are you doing here? You don’t belong here.’ For me, I was a Latina girl, no education, no family, I didn’t speak English, and I came to the U.S. aiming for one of the most interesting jobs ever. In general, I love watching the story behind the athletes. They’re constantly fighting for or against something, proving themselves, showing how far they can go. I love the Nike ad that says, ‘Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough.’

Between work and family, are you able to carve out time to get away with girlfriends?

I met my friend Tiffany during a NASA internship in 2006; she was my maid of honor when I got married, then I was hers. During our internship, we were the only two who weren’t white — she's African American, I’m Latina — so we had that gravitational pull to hang out together, and we bonded over [knowing what it feels like to] experience things slightly differently, to feel a little displaced.

We live on opposite coasts, so we meet two or three times year. We both love driving, so we like traveling places where we need to drive for a while, and we’ll play our new favorite songs for each other. We used to travel somewhere fun together every Fourth of July — Catalina Island, Yellowstone National Park … but on her wedding day, her husband told me he was reclaiming the Fourth, because he loves that holiday. He’s a big griller. So I gave it to him because it was his wedding day.

Every September, Tiffany and I attend a women's church conference together, where women exchange tips on life, marriage, stress management. It’s all about being vulnerable and supporting each other.

Back home in my city, I like getting together with my girlfriends who have kiddos. Many of us had babies at the same time, so we've got the kids hanging around as we have tea and go for a stroll.

What’s a bit of advice you wish you could impart to other women?

We tend to think we need to tone down our lives to make a change — we need to have an easier job just because we have lots of kids, or we need to compromise our hours at home because we have a difficult job. We’re constantly judging ourselves, feeling like we’re never enough, especially in our 30s and 40s. I had to stop that and just say, ‘Screw that. I’m done.’ I’m not going to keep up with the guilt trips — I’m not pretty enough, not skinny enough. The truth is, I’m good at my job because I’m a woman. I’m able to see things everyone else can’t see. That's your job as a mom, always asking, ‘Where are the kids, are they OK? Did they eat?’ [Managing] that chaos makes us good at what we do. We don’t need to choose — we can have it all as long as we accept ourselves.

You once worked as a zero gravity coach on a commercial parabolic flight in Las Vegas (aka “The Vomit Comet”), where civilians could experience weightlessness. What does it feel like?

It’s a crazy feeling, a combination of skydiving, scuba diving and jumping. You move so fast because there’s no friction. My favorite thing to do is something I call The Spiderman; I’ll put my feet on the ceiling and just hang in the air, upside down, standing on the roof of the airplane. I like to wear my hair loose so it goes everywhere.