Meet NASA's Flight Director of Mars Perseverance, Who Came to U.S. with $300 and Cleaned Bathrooms

Diana Trujillo immigrated to the United States from Colombia when she was 17

Diana Trujillo
Diana Trujillo. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty

As a child growing up in Cali, Colombia, Diana Trujillo would lie beneath the stars, look to the sky and think, "Something has to be out there that's better than this."

Last week, Trujillo had the chance to see for herself if there was, when NASA's Perseverance Rover, for which she is the flight director, landed successfully on Mars.

"Understanding if we're alone in the universe is the ultimate question," Trujillo, an aerospace engineer, told CBS News. "I hope that within the one year of surface operations on Mars, we can answer that question soon."

As one of the few Hispanic women working in the field, Trujillo has never forgotten the roots that helped her get to the top of the aerospace ladder, and land her dream job at NASA.

She told TechCrunch in 2018 that she grew up with the mindset that it was the woman's place to take care of the men in the family, and that her mother dropped out of med school when she met Trujillo's father and became pregnant with her.

Diana Trujillo
Diana Trujillo. Eric Charbonneau/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

"My parents got divorced when I turned 12. After that happened, my mom had nothing. No money. We didn't even have food. We'd boil an egg and we'd cut it in half, and that was our lunch that day," she said. "I remember just laying down on the grass and looking at the sky and thinking, 'Something has to be out there that's better than this. Some other species that treats themselves better or values people better.'"

In a NASA video in September, she added: "I was born and raised in Colombia. There was a lot of violence going on in my country, so for me, looking up at the sky and looking at the stars was my safe place."

When she turned 17, Trujillo, who did not speak English, flew to Miami with just $300 in her pocket to start living life the way she wanted to live it, according to CBS News.

Diana Trujillo
Diana Trujillo. Rachel Murray/Getty

To put herself through community college, she secured a housekeeping job, and was able to transfer to the University of Florida, where she majored in aerospace engineering.

"I saw everything coming my way as an opportunity," she told CBS News. "I didn't see it as, 'I can't believe I'm doing this job at night,' or 'I can't believe that I'm cleaning. I can't believe that I'm a cleaning a bathroom right now.' It was just more like, 'I'm glad that I have a job and I can buy food and have a house to sleep.' And so, I think that all of those things make me, and even today, helps me see life differently. I see it more as every instant I need to be present because every instance matters."

Trujillo applied to the NASA Academy her senior year of college, and was the first immigrant Hispanic woman to join the program, according to TechCrunch. NASA hired her that year, and in 2009, she became a telecom systems engineer for the Mars Curiosity Rover, which landed successfully on Mars in 2012.

RELATED VIDEO: NASA Releases First Ever High-Speed Video Of The Perseverance Rover Landing On Mars

"As a little girl, I saw the women in my family give up a lot. It gave me the tenacity that I needed to say I'm not going to give up on my dream," she told TechCrunch. "I want to be out there looking back in, showing my family that women have value, that women matter."

Now, as a member of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, Trujillo is more than proving that value, as her hard work helped create the robotic arm that the Perseverance will use to collect rock samples on Mars during its mission. The samples will help scientists get a better understanding of the terrain and whether or not it ever held life.

She's also helping to elevate and amplify her heritage, and last week, hosted NASA's first-ever Spanish language broadcast for planetary landing. Trujillo said her goal is to help the next generation of Latina women realize they, too, can be successful in the STEM world.

"The abuelas, the moms or dads, the uncles, los primos, like everyone has to see this," she told CBS News. "And they have to see a woman in there, too. So that they can turn around to the younger generation and say, 'She can do it, you can do it.'"

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