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Valdez’ journey: From East L.A to the planet Mars
Photo courtesy: NASA

By Ernest Gurulé

In the 1988 movie, “Stand and Deliver,” iconic mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante put Garfield High School on the map. In the movie and real life, Escalante used his unique teaching skills---part motivational, part subterfuge---to challenge a group of Latino students, some underachieving, others unaware of their natural talent, to grasp the intricacies of calculus. The movie garnered Olmos an Academy Award nomination.

What Escalante did for East Los Angeles native and former student Sergio Valdez, helped lay the foundation for the work Valdez team did with NASA’s Mission Perseverance, a space probe now firmly entrenched on the surface of Mars. Valdez, now an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and his team built a mini helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, that will be the first powered flight device to take wing and explore the landscape of another planet.

The tiny helicopter weighs approximately four pounds and has a fuselage about the same size as a tissue box. Its number one job is to attempt rotor flight in an environment that has only one percent density of Earth’s atmosphere. It will not attempt its first flight for another two to three weeks. It will then fly as many as five times over the course of a month, each flight being for no more than, perhaps, ninety seconds. It will cover distances of not quite a thousand feet and hover no more than 10 to 15 feet above the ground. Ingenuity will carry a camera for navigation, landing, and surveying of the terrain. It will send its data to the Perseverance rover where it will be relayed to Earth.

Perseverance, launched last July, completed the seven month, 293-million mile trip on February 18th. The mission, a precursor to manned flights to Mars, will search for signs of ancient life in Jezero Crater, study the evolution of the planet’s climate, surface and its interior. It will collect samples that may one day be returned to Earth for study. In this latest visit to Mars, Perseverance’s work will build on knowledge of the planet already gleaned from previous explorations.

For Valdez, working as a lead engineer at JPL is a light year from what he imagined for himself when he first stepped into Escalante’s classroom. He told Los Angeles News 1, “Back then, my vision of what a career was is the person doing checkout at the grocery store.” But Escalante’s mentorship and instruction instilled confidence and the idea of possibility in Valdez. It also made college math at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo a whole lot easier. “There was some material that I already had done in high school in Jaime Escalante’s class…so that just tells you how rich his depth of calculus and math was.” Valdez showed enough promise in college to land summer internships at JPL, the same place where he now punches the clock.

Valdez said his journey seems as surreal as Mission Perseverance’s. Who could have imagined, he said, that a barrio kid who once thought being a check-out clerk at a neighborhood grocery store would be leading a team of engineers giving instructions to a helicopter on the surface of another planet---293 million miles away? “I feel very lucky to be part of a team like this,” he told Los Angeles’ ABC7. “To have come from a community that,” before pausing, “you rarely think you can end up in a place like JPL.” From East LA to Pasadena and JPL, to many, may as well be as distant as Earth is to Mars.

While Valdez is understandably proud of his team’s segment of the mission, his accomplishment has touched thousands of Garfield alumni all over the country and for all kinds of reasons.

“I have to say that Garfield can be a challenging place to go to school,” said Garfield graduate Dr. Leonor Xochitl Perez, a Chicana/o Studies professor at San Diego State University and one of the country’s premier Mariachi music historians. “This current achievement only speaks to the resilience of the community,” she said, “and the fact that regardless of where you are in East LA, that there are always positive influences that when embraced can be used as stepping-stones that will take you beyond expectations.”

Perez shares her Garfield colleagues’ pride in Valdez. Her Garfield colleague has “pushed through” and accomplished something amazing, she said. Valdez, said the college professor, is now a role model. “But one is not enough. He has shown that it (his accomplishment) is possible and he’s inspiring to so many. He has faced challenges and he has achieved.”

In many ways, Valdez own journey---born to Mexican immigrants who settled in East Los Angeles---to a leadership position in a daring and tricky mission that will take place nearly 300-million miles away and pave the way for man to follow is not much different than Ingenuity Helicopter’s.

Ingenuity, after all, had to survive a bolt-shaking liftoff, travel seven months in the dark of space, survive intense heat while entering the Martian atmosphere, and then land while nestled sideways under the belly of Perseverance rover, all the while shielded by a cover protecting it from debris kicked up during landing.

NASA says sometime in the next twenty days and only when a suitable site is located, the rover’s Mars Helicopter Delivery System will jettison the landing cover and rotate the craft to a legs-down position to gently set Ingenuity on the surface in preparation for its first mission.

Ingenuity made it. So too did Valdez. From East LA to Mars. Not bad for a kid who thought checking groceries---not the stars---might have been his lot in life.





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