NASA's next generation of Natives: After the moon it's the 2020 Mission to Mars

Aaron Yazzie follows the footsteps of Native pioneers like John Herrington and Jerry Elliot; NASA now has some 21 Native American employees

Aaron Yazzie sometimes felt like he was in a “little bubble" growing up on the Navajo Nation reservation in Holbrook, Arizona.

He doesn’t remember learning about the exact happenings of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. The bulk of his information came from the movies.

That is, until he graduated from Stanford University, and then became a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Now, he proudly follows the footsteps of Native pioneers like John Herrington and Jerry Elliot, defining the next generation of Natives working for the United States space program.

In November, he played a part in building hardware on the InSight Mars Lander whose mission is to map out the structure of Mars. He built the spacecraft’s pressure inlet, a device that accurately monitors the pressure of the Red Planet’s atmosphere.

While Earth and Mars are a mere 250 million miles away, Yazzie says they are more in common than one would think. For him, this has been an unexpected way to think about the planet

Both planets are classified as “terrestrial,” meaning that they have a similar internal structure. They have a core, mantle and crust which is why they share similarities in their land formations.

“I get really excited to show people that our two planets are really not that different,” Yazzie said.

Yazzie, 33, credits his success to the mentorship he received through the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. He has been a member since high school.

It was at an AISES conference where Yazzie first met other Natives working at NASA like Herrington and Elliott.

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Aaron Yazzie and Jerry Elliot in front of the Endeavor Space Shuttle at the California Science Center in 2015. Photo by Aaron Yazzie.)

“I’ve always looked up to them,” Yazzie said. “They have been leaders and elders in STEM. I always wanted to follow in their path.”

NASA currently has 21 Native American employees. When asked what they share in common, Yazzie laughed. “Well, to be honest, the biggest thing that we talk about is outreach and giving back to the Native community."

It is true. Yazzie has given a keynote address at his alma mater, Holbrook High School and given presentations to young children via Google Hangout.

He is currently working on a new mission: Mars 2020.

This time, he is building a tool to be able to drill holes into rocks and pull out samples. Their hope is that the first man (or woman) on Mars will bring the samples back to earth with them.

If successfully completed, it will be the first time any objects will travel from Mars to Earth.

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is the Rowland and Pat Journalism Fellow at Indian Country Today and a reporter-producer. Her email is: achavez@indiancountrytoday.com. On Twitter: @aliyahjchavez

Video footage courtesy of Arizona PBS and NASA. 

Previous stories: 

Moon landing: 'Great amount of pride being the only Native person on the control team'

First Native American in space reflects on the journey

Google's latest Doodle: A Cherokee Engineer (that you should know about)

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