March 3, 2024

One of the members of the team behind the successful landing of the Perseverance rover – a spacecraft designed to seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith in Mars – is a Filipino-American who once studied in Baguio City.
In his biography published by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the 33-year-old Gregorio Villar III has always been fascinated with movies that had something to do with the outer space.
Movies like Contact, Apollo 13, Armageddon, and Independence Day, have sparked his interest in space and science. As a child, he always dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
Growing up, Villar pursued his passion. He studied high school at Saint Louis University where he excelled in Math and Science.
When he went to the U.S., he took up Physics specializing in Astrophysics at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, then took up his Master’s in Astronautical Engineering at the University of Southern California.
His entry in NASA started in his junior year in college when he was awarded a scholarship which included an internship at a NASA center of his choice.
He chose to intern at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 2010 and got hired full-time in 2012.
JPL’s primary function is the construction and operation of planetary robotic spacecrafts.
Villar is presently one of the youngest entry, descent, landing (EDL) systems engineers at the NASA JPL.
The NASA Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission describes the EDL as the shortest and most intense phase of the Mars 2020 mission.
“It begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of the Martian atmosphere, travelling nearly 12,500 miles per hour (20,000 kilometers per hour). It ends about seven minutes later, with Perseverance stationary on the Martian surface. To safely go from those speeds down to zero, in that short amount of time, while hitting a narrow target on the surface, requires ‘slamming on the brakes’ in a very careful, creative and challenging way.”
Villar’s contributions in the Perseverance mission were his spending seven and a half years building and testing a system that will land a car-sized rover on Mars; he was head verification and validation engineer for the EDL phase; he directed a Mars parachute test campaign at the NASA Ames Research Center, the world’s largest wind tunnel; and led a council of atmospheric scientists from institutions around the world to characterize the Martian atmosphere.
His valuable inputs to the mission led to the successful landing of the rover on Feb. 18 – a historic moment in space exploration.
The rover will spend one Mars year (two years on Earth), according to a NASA fact sheet.
The Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020 in Florida as part of the NASA’s mission to assess ancient habitability; seek signs of ancient life, particularly in special rocks known to preserve signs of life over time; gather rock and soil samples that could be returned to Earth by a future NASA mission; and demonstrate technology for future robotic and human exploration.
Villar is one of the three Filipinos who were part of the 300-member team.
Villar was also part of the 800-member Mars Science Laboratory Mission which sent the Curiosity rover – precursor of the Perseverance rover in 2012.
Just the like rover, Gregorio said perseverance is key in achieving something you love. “I have worked at JPL for over 12 years, and there is rarely a day that I feel like I am going to work,” Gregorio said in his bio. – Rimaliza A. Opiña