Gregory G. Villar III, NASA Engineer at age 24

ON NOVEMBER 26, Saturday, NASA launched the biggest and best-equipped robot ever sent to explore another planet from the Kennedy Space Centre. Dubbed Mars Curiosity but more formally called the Mars Science Laboratory, it is expected to reach Mars by August 2012.

If all goes according to plan, the rover will be abseiling down from a hovering “sky crane” to set off across the surface of Mars equipped with equipment to analyze Martian soil and rocks for evidence that Earth’s neighbor might once have been supported life.

Among the inspiring people at NASA, who worked on the Mars Curiosity project, is Filipino-American Gregory Galgana Villar III.

He is one of the youngest verification and validation engineers for the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Gregory Galgana Villar III, 24, is a relatively new hire at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The fact that he took part in one of the most ambitious NASA missions and was in JPL’s mission control center last Saturday inspires wonder.

Villar was with a team of outstanding scientists and engineers stationed at computer monitors of all kinds and anxiously who awaited the launch of a mission eight years in the making.

Villar comes from Long Beach and has always been interested in physics and astronomy. Over the years, he’s gone from observing stars and planets to majoring in physics while interning at JPL with some of the most renowned scientists in the world to now working in an engineering discipline on one of NASA’s flagship missions.

Asked how he got into NASA, Villar said, “I spent two years interning with three different education programs at JPL.” Villar participated in the Laboratory’s Minority Initiatives Internship, Space Grant and Undergraduate Student Research Program as an undergrad student at Cal-Poly, Pomona.

“As with any job, it’s not really your background, it’s how smart you are and how well you adapt or how fast you can learn on the job,” said Villar. “So long as they see that you’re very motivated and smart, they’ll take you on for the job.”

Villar was a Physics major who graduated from Cal Poly Pomona in 2009 and is currently working at JPL and applying to Astronomy graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. He has done a number of Astronomy research projects as an undergraduate. He first participated in a research project with Dr. Joe Carson of JPL and Dr. Alex Rudolph of CPP searching for Brown Dwarfs around nearby stars using the Palomar 200” telescope near San Diego, California. He subsequently worked with Dr. Raghvendra Sahai at JPL and Dr. Mark Morris of UCLA, developing a morphological classification scheme on young planetary nebulae, one possible end state of a star.

“I’m on the Verification and Validation team until we get to Mars,” said Villar, who was also recently accepted into the astronautical engineering master’s program at the University of Southern California, but is deferring until the rover has landed. “I’m working on extending my future with the mission team, but wherever JPL takes me, wherever my future takes me, is where I’ll go.”

When and how did Villar decide to pursue a career in astronomy?

“It was a clear night in December of 2006, and I remember standing inside the extremely large structure. I was waiting cold and anxiously in the dark. After a few minutes, I heard the gears start to turn and quickly looked up. I watched in awe as the slit of the dome opened and revealed the beautiful night sky. The moonlight gradually illuminated the inside of the dome, and my admiration progressed as I watched the massive 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory be positioned. This breathtaking moment confirmed my aspirations of becoming an astronomer.”

“Research in astronomy began sophomore year of my undergraduate career. Dr. Rudolph announced a research opportunity to work with Dr. Joseph Carson, a former student of his that was doing postdoctoral research at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 2006, I was selected to be a part of this project. Our task was to search for brown dwarfs, sub-stellar objects that did not have enough mass to sustain nuclear fusion. During the course of our research, we had the amazing opportunity to visit the Palomar Observatory and use their 200-inch Hale Telescope and take data. A majority of the work done on the project was done from Cal Poly where we reduced the images taken at Palomar. In 2009, a paper was published in the Astronomical Journal regarding our research and I was included as a co-author.”

Gregory goes on to explain how he got into NASA: “With the brown dwarf research under my belt, I was able to acquire a NASA scholarship in 2007. I was awarded NASA’s Motivating Undergraduate in Science and Technology (MUST) scholarship that included a summer internship at one of their centers. This led me to my next research project in astronomy. I worked at JPL with Dr. Raghvendra Sahai, collaborating with Dr. Mark Morris of UCLA, developing a morphological classification scheme on young planetary nebulae, one possible end state of a star. About 100 young planetary nebulae were studied using high-resolution images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope and were classified according to their sizes and shapes. In addition, I calculated the ages of these objects. I presented my work at the 213th American Astronomical Society Meeting and it was very exciting being able to participate in a professional conference in my field.”

“In the fall of 2009, I was in NASA’s Undergraduate Student Research Program. Here, I worked under the supervision of Dr. Glenn Orton studying the 2009 Jupiter impact. Fortunately, I was able to remotely use NASA’s InfraRed Telescope Facility. My assignment was to develop atmospheric models that matched our observations in order to study the effect of the impact on Jupiter’s atmosphere. A paper has just been submitted to Science reporting our preliminary results.”

When not working in NASA, Villar likes to write very interesting blogs on the internet. He has the ongoing 100 Words of Physics blog, wherein he talks about his hard-to-understand world in understandable layman’s terms. Explaining his series, he invites. “Time Travel. Black Holes. Quantum Mechanics. Follow me as I explain cool physics that ANYONE can understand in 100 words.”

Here’s a sample of a blog entitled Shrinking Objects. “If Superman flew by you near the speed-of-light, he would look much shorter than if he flew by at the speed of an airplane. This is because length contraction (a concept in ETOSR) says when an object moves at high speeds, the object will look like it shrinks in length. Similar to time dilation, length contraction is only obvious at speeds close to the speed-of-light. If a limo could not fit into a garage when it is parked, do you think it would fit for a second if it traveled really fast (before it crashes through the wall of course)?”

What’s next for Villar? “After obtaining my PhD in astronomy, I would like to continue conducting research. I am definitely open to doing post-doctoral work anywhere, even abroad, in order to experience a new environment. One day, after contributing a great deal to the astronomical community, I would love to continue my research and also teach by obtaining a professorship at a University. Through teaching, I can continue to share my love and knowledge of Physics and Astronomy to younger generations,” said the young Fil-Am astronomer.

After Curiosity successfully blasted last Saturday on the way to Mars, Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA) senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science subcommittee which is in charge of NASA funding said, “I applaud the efforts of NASA and the President’s commitment to set Mars as a goal for future manned space exploration. The men and women who work at NASA inspire us that we should not limit our imaginations to what is or what was but what can be.”

Yes, Gregory Villar III has certainly inspired us to keep reaching for greater heights and dream of what can be.


(LA Weekend Dec 3-6, 2011 Sec A pg. 10)

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