A spacecraft engineer’s wisdom from Mars 2020 and a disaster-stricken island

'The Space Mechanic' illustrates the importance of taking risks, close to home and millions of miles away.
NASA Perseverance rover being readied indoors for launch for the Mars 2020 mission
The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover being prepared for encapsulation in the a payload facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 18, 2020. NASA/KSC

Excerpt from The Boy Who Reached for the Stars: A Memoir by Elio Morillo. Published by HarperOne. Copyright © 2022 HarperCollins.

On September 20, 2017, Category 5 Hurricane María hit my beloved Puerto Rico, hovering over the island for the next 48 hours, uprooting trees, causing power and phone outages, and inflicting catastrophic devastation throughout the land. It was a terrifying stretch of time when those of us with loved ones in the path of this

destruction could only hope and pray they were okay. As we waited to get any type of news, my fix-it mentality kicked in—I needed to do something to channel my helplessness into action. I joined forces with a Puerto Rican who worked in another team at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to begin collecting donations, so we would be ready to ship them out as soon as it was possible. Relief washed over us both when the worry laden silence was finally broken and we heard from our respective families and friends. More than anything, they had suffered material damage to their homes and surrounding streets, but everyone within our circles was okay otherwise. Rosa and Sonia described the experience as a powered-on jet engine sucking everything up into the air.

As more news was released of the extent of the damage people had suffered, my friend and I continued to organize donation efforts in Los Angeles. It was all we could do at the time. I had to carry my worry while I continued to work. I was assigned to avionics and thermal functions testing. In simple terms, the rover has two brains: its main day-to-day brain and what I call its lizard brain. The lizard brain is always running in the background, ready for fight or flight. It checks to make sure that the main computer, or main brain, is working well. If something goes south with the main brain, then the lizard brain can go through particular states to keep the system at a basic level of safety, putting the rover in a partially autonomous configuration that allows us time to figure out what to input to safely reconfigure its hardware.

The rover’s thermal behaviors are what helps keep it alive overnight, when Mars temperatures can drop to −100°F or lower, depending on the season. There are particular instruments and mechanisms that can only operate within a specific range of temperatures.

If they become too cold, we must be able to heat them up. If they’re too warm, we have to stop using them or actively cool them down to the range we want them to operate in. As we gradually entered an all-hands-on-deck phase ahead of our July 2020 launch date, I knew that if I was going to be an effective and successful member of the team, I needed to make the conscious decision to put my work first, but not before making my all-important pit stop to spend Christmas with my family.

We were developing the capabilities, the hardware, all of it, to fulfill a technology demonstration to test the first powered flight on Mars, but NASA HQ still hadn’t given the okay to add it to the Mars 2020 mission.

This time we met up in Florida. My grandparents, who didn’t travel often, joined us from New York. And I got to reunite with Sonia and Robert, who were temporarily living in the area while they sorted through Hurricane María’s damage back home. While my abuelo made sure the TV and music were set up and ready for our gathering, my abuela got busy in the kitchen, whipping up her famous casuela or caldo de bola together with extra sides to keep us all fed, full, and happy. My tías and tíos would give them a hand while making fun of each other and roasting my cousins. And a round of Telefunken (a game similar to rummy) was always in order, with bets of up to two dollars per person per round.

The highlight of this break wasn’t just spending quality time with my relatives and chosen family; it was also getting the chance to take my 91-year-old grandfather and my brother to the Kennedy Space Center—a first for the three of us. Walking into the center and suddenly being in the presence of all this antiquated hardware took my breath away. The exhibit featuring the Saturn V launch vehicle made me feel so small. I was mesmerized by how the 1950s team was able to design the stunning hardware displayed before me with the limited technology they had access to in comparison to what we have now. Sure, they had a relatively bigger budget and thousands of people working on one problem, which is not a luxury we enjoy, but they didn’t have our software and automated procedures, and they were doing it all for the first time. As if taking all of this in wasn’t enough, being there as a NASA engineer, walking the entire center by my grandfather’s side, with me as our tour guide, explaining each piece before us, was an unparalleled full-circle moment for me. I stopped several times, glanced at my grandfather, and quietly asked, “Abuelo, are you okay? Would you like us to sit down for a little while to rest?” but he outright refused any break, likely pushed forward by a sense of pride for his walking abilities as well as the sense of wonder that had taken hold of us all as we witnessed this history-making equipment. It was an unequivocal reminder of the legacy I was now helping build with the Mars 2020 mission.

Inspired by the history I had witnessed at the Kennedy Center, and with a renewed sense of purpose, I was more eager than ever to dive even deeper into the mission at stake. February 2018 found me interacting with the Ingenuity helicopter for the first time, more specifically its base station, a component of the helicopter system that would live on the rover. This is the piece of hardware that would communicate with the helicopter on Mars. We were developing the capabilities, the hardware, all of it, to fulfill a technology demonstration to test the first powered flight on Mars, but NASA HQ still hadn’t given the okay to add it to the Mars 2020 mission. So we were operating with the hope this green light would eventually be given, and we kept plowing ahead on the rover side, considering how we’d carry the helicopter, how we’d communicate with it, how we’d operate it from this base station. Initially, many of the people on the integration side of the rover were against the idea of integrating the helicopter as a separate system, because that meant it would also have its own separate battery. What if its battery caught fire while cruising through space or on the Mars surface? How would that damage the rover itself? “There’s no way the helicopter will work” was one line of thought. The other: “There’s no way you’ll be able to get all of this work done in time.” And the third: “This helicopter will be a distraction from the rest of the science the rover has to accomplish.” Was it a risk to do this tremendous amount of work for a helicopter that might never launch? Yes, but it was one some of us were willing to take.

As the summer neared, I set my mind on Puerto Rico and the risks and sacrifices they had been forced to take when Hurricane María hit their shores. The island had far from recovered from the damage sustained a little less than a year earlier, and my colleague (turned girlfriend) and I were still eager to help in any way we could. I decided to use my social media to reach out to teachers in Puerto Rico to see how we could help that summer. I quickly received a reply from a University of Michigan friend whose mom had a colleague, Marisa, in need of some help. With the community’s blessing, she and her husband had decided to take over an abandoned school in Los Naranjos, a neighborhood in Vega Baja, located near Dorado, and turn it into a community center. The local residents had lost so much during the hurricane that she was hell-bent on making a difference. Now they were looking for volunteer to get the center off the ground. My girlfriend and I created a three-day STEM program for kids between the ages of eight and 15, called Ingenieros del Futuro (Engineers of the Future). The activities we planned introduced the kids to basic engineering concepts and revolved around three themes: robotics, electricity, and rockets. I set up a GoFundMe to help pay for some of the materials, while we paid for everything else out of pocket.

When we arrived, seeing the devastation firsthand threw me off my orbit and momentarily pushed me into an impotent void. As I painstakingly drove through intersections where the traffic lights had gone dark due to the lack of power, I slowly took in the trees scattered around the area like giant twigs, displaced rooftops, cut-down electricity cables, and attempted to store this harrowing data in a corner of my mind so I could find my way back to our main focus: the kids. I’d give myself time to process this emotional oscillation later, when I returned home.

The Boy who reached for the Stars book cover. Silhouette of a NASA engineer in front of a blue starry sky. Text is in white with Mars replacing the "o" in "boy."

We immediately got the kids working and building several projects—a basic robot, an electric car that used a solar panel to power it, a satellite model, and a wind turbine—to illustrate robotics, sustainable energy, and space exploration. We also scheduled outdoor time to give their brains a break and burn some energy playing soccer with us. For the last project of their three-day journey, I taught them how to build a rocket with a two-liter plastic bottle and a few other readily available components. I had also purchased a bottle launch system that pumped up the rockets and had a trigger that allowed each kid to send their own rocket into the air.

Once it reached a certain height, a parachute they had built into their system with their own hands deployed, safely landing their creation. Their excitement during each launch, descent, and landing, about further engaging with technology and pursuing opportunities in STEM, gave me hope for the people of Puerto Rico. The island currently has to import most of its food, despite once being fully reliant on its own agriculture sector. With agritech becoming more accessible, combined with the development of hydroponics, vertical farming, and more, I see this as a potentially booming sector for Puerto Rico in the future. But they will need dedicated STEM workers to make it happen. The same goes for the ever-controversial power grid. As energy storage and solar, hydro, and wind power become more accessible, microgrids will thrive, and so will the jobs related to those renewable systems.

Sinergia Los Naranjos is still active in the community. Marisa successfully launched a kitchen for folks to run catering businesses, and her husband, Ricardo, runs a reef restoration effort where many of the kids participate and get scuba training. Workshops occur in partnership with local student groups from nearby universities, mostly through grassroots funding and efforts. These kids have the power to build a better future, and I hope to continue to be able to come alongside them and encourage these developments through outreach, philanthropy, and policy influence.

By the spring of 2019, I was working with a few team members to test the capability of our rover to charge the helicopter battery through its base station while traversing space. Batteries, including those in computers and cell phones, left uncharged for a long period of time lose their properties and can’t regain their full charging potential.

Similarly, overcharging a battery and leaving it stored for a long period of time will degrade its lifetime. We had to figure out the sweet spot for the helicopter battery, then find how to measure that charge and, based on that, how to charge it from the rover battery.

Once we figured this out through tests and failures and finally verified what worked, we had to come up with the sequence of steps that needed to be taken to charge the helicopter while flying through space. It was a complicated set of tests that took up a lot of our time but was essential to the helicopter’s functionality and safety.

That summer I began to write and execute integration procedures for the helicopter deployment system, which is the assembly at the bottom of the rover that would hold the helicopter and deploy it. The system consisted of a tiny robotic arm with a motor that would keep the helicopter upright so that it could be successfully dropped onto the Martian surface. After testing this capability and gathering the necessary parameters, we determined that we could indeed deploy it on Mars. A short while after this, JPL finally approved the addition of the helicopter to the Mars 2020 mission. We got the green light. Like most times in my life, the risk proved to be worth taking.

Buy The Boy Who Reached for the Stars by Elio Morillo here.