The Sky Is No Limit for Fernando Abilleira
Saint Louis University Parks College graduate helps land NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover on Mars.
Mars Science Laboratory
By the numbers
At 10:32 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5, 2012, more than eight months after launching on a rocket from Cape Canaveral, NASA’s 8,463-pound Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft completed its journey through the void of space and successfully delivered the car-sized Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars. The precision of its landing was unprecedented in the history of space travel.
After traveling nearly 350 million miles, the Mars Science Laboratory roared into the thin Martian atmosphere at speeds topping 13,000 mph. Next, in the span of just seven minutes, it deployed a supersonic parachute, jettisoned a heat shield and fired a retro rocket that slowed the vehicle to less than 2 mph. Then, a first-of-its-kind sky crane system gently lowered Curiosity’s wheels onto the surface of the Red Planet. The robotic spacecraft had been placed just one-and-a-half miles from the center of its target at the bottom of Gale Crater, between the crater’s wall and 3-mile-high mountain known as Mount Sharp.
“The vehicle performed flawlessly,” said Fernando Abilleira (B.S. ‘99, M.S. ‘01, Aerospace Engineering), 35, trajectory lead and a member of the Curiosity navigation team responsible for delivering the spacecraft to the optimal point on the top of the Martian atmosphere required to accurately land inside Gale Crater.
Abilleira’s team designed an innovative entry guidance system that allowed the Mars Science Laboratory to decide in real time, based on pre-loaded software, how to maneuver through the atmosphere.
“From atmospheric entry to landing, the vehicle went into six different spacecraft configurations and 76 pyrotechnic devices were fired,” said Abilleira. “If this complex sequence of events had not worked perfectly, the mission would have been over. There was no margin for error.”
The touchdown of Curiosity was the culmination of a $2.5 billion project that NASA began planning a dozen years ago. For Abilleira, who joined the team in 2007 as a mission design engineer and trajectory analyst, the landing was the culmination of a lifelong fascination with space exploration that began when he was a boy in Madrid.
MADRID TO MARS
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory operates a global Deep Space Network of three large antennas and communication facilities that support its missions. To ensure that their powerful telescopes and antennas are always tracking their spacecraft, these ground stations are carefully placed approximately 120 degrees apart across the world, in Goldstone, California, Canberra, Australia, and Madrid, Spain.
Before he entered high school, Abilleira’s parents already had taken him several times on the two-hour roundtrip drive to the Madrid suburb to visit the NASA facility.
“The three Deep Space Network communications complexes each have a 230-ft diameter antenna that is nearly as long as a football field,” said Abilleira. “It looked like science fiction. I was fascinated by it and dreamed of working on missions to outer space.”
Abilleira’s dreams moved toward reality when he earned a scholarship to study aerospace engineering with an emphasis on orbital mechanics and astrodynamics at Saint Louis University in Madrid. In 1997, he moved to St. Louis for the final two years of his undergraduate studies. Coincidentally, this was the same year that Parks College moved from Cahokia, Ill., to the new McDonnell Douglas Hall on SLU’s main campus. Abilleira earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from SLU in 1999 and his M.S. in aerospace engineering in 2001.
“Some of my classmates from the Madrid campus transferred to other schools but I knew that SLU had an excellent aerospace program,” said Abilleira. “I was fortunate to have scholarships and that some of Parks College’s teachers had specialties in space-oriented disciplines. For me, going to SLU was an easy decision. I have great memories of my time there.”
While working toward his master’s degree, Abilleira began writing a paper based on his thesis work. His dissertation focused on optimizing interplanetary trajectories between Earth and Mars. He found the subject so captivating that he ended up outlining the entire mission architecture, including the design of the spacecraft, the propulsion system, the thermal and power systems, and the landing elements. Based on its groundbreaking ideas, the paper won high honors in a national competition sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Recognition from his thesis helped open the door for Abilleira to work as a contractor at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, D.C., where he provided mission analysis and design support for projects including the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope. But Mars was calling: By January 2004, Abilleira accepted an offer to join the Mars Exploration Program Office in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Within three years, he became a member of the Mars Science Laboratory’s team.
As the trajectory lead during launch, cruise, approach and surface operations, one of Abilleira ‘s primary responsibilities was to design and optimize the launch period for this historic spacecraft, which, with its payload of scientific instruments, was five times heavier than any other previously delivered to Mars. He also was responsible for ensuring that the three orbiters already circling Mars were positioned to relay communications from Curiosity back to Earth during the entry, descent and landing sequence.
On the evening of August 5, the mood in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s mission control room was tense but confident.
“We knew we had done everything we could to maximize the chances for success,” said Abilleira. “It was time to watch the spacecraft do its job. Fortunately, the entire entry, descent and landing sequence was executed like clockwork. It was amazing.”
The entry, descent and landing on the Martian surface may have happened as scripted, but not before the team gathered in the control room and endured what they have semi-affectionately called, “Curiosity’s seven minutes of terror.”
“The successful descent of the spacecraft from the top of the atmosphere into Gale Crater took about seven minutes,” explained Abilleira. “However, we didn’t get confirmation of landing until 14 minutes later due to the one-way light time delay.”
When data started returning from Mars and the first images from the cameras mounted on the rover’s platform began appearing on the large monitors in the mission control room, the dozens of people gathered in the crowded control rooms erupted in celebration. The most complex machine that NASA has ever sent to another planet had made a flawless landing.
“One of the biggest challenges we had was that the spacecraft was so complicated that no single person within the project could possibly know every single detail about how the vehicle would operate under every possible scenario,” said Abilleira. “More than 5,000 people had been working toward a common goal for over a decade. It was an incredible team effort and success for humankind. I will never forget that night.”
Since the landing, Abilleira has continued supporting the rover’s surface operations. This includes ensuring that Curiosity is uplinking all its findings to the three orbiters, which send the data back to NASA.
IS LIFE COMMON IN THE UNIVERSE?
Could Mars have supported life at some point in the past? NASA’s scientists sent this mobile laboratory to a location in Gale Crater where they believe water existed billions of years ago. Curiosity is now examining rocks, soil and the atmosphere for signs that could indicate that the landing region had the conditions necessary to support life.
“We have data suggesting that water used to flow through that crater several billion years ago,” said Abilleira. “We are now analyzing the rocks and samples looking for carbon-based molecules — for the building blocks of life.”
The universe is vast, with billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars. The idea that NASA’s probe of the planet closest to Earth would find signs of primitive past life is game-changing.
“It would mean that life must be very common in the universe,” said Abilleira.
In addition to studying the geology and climate, Curiosity is investigating the planet’s habitability and collecting data to support a future manned mission to Mars.
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
Abilleira appears in some of NASA’s promotional videos on the mission — search YouTube for ” NASA’s the challenges of getting to Mars” — and can barely contain his enthusiasm when talking about the success of the Mars Science Laboratory.
“I am always happy to talk to the public about it because it is very important that we share what NASA does with people who have a right to know how the government spends taxpayers’ dollars,” he said.
That $2.5 billion cost for the mission, which was spread across about 12 years, was a direct investment in the U.S. economy, explained Abilleira.
“The total cost of this project to each person living in the U.S. was about seven dollars — less than the price of a movie ticket,” he said. “NASA is one of the few federal agencies that actually generates a return on investment. Even the most conservative studies show that for each dollar invested on NASA, the government gets at least $1.50 in return. It creates jobs and stimulates the economy.”
As he transitions off Curiosity’s surface operations team, Abilleira has started working on the next generation of Mars landers to be launched in the second half of the decade.
He and his wife, Sarah, who is trained as a physical therapist and graduated from SLU’s School of Allied Health in 2003, make their home in Simi Valley, Calif., a 35-minute drive from Pasadena. They keep busy with three sons: a five-year-old and three-year-old twins.
“I think about my own kids and hope young people are inspired by this mission as an example of what they are capable of if they are determined and passionate,” said Abilleira. “It does not have to involve aerospace engineering or space. If you put your mind to something and work hard, anything is possible.”