NASA Mechanical Engineer Aaron Yazzie Discusses His Work on Mars

Aaron Yazzie, Diné, earned his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University. As a Mechanical Engineer with a focus on Planetary Sample Acquisition and Handling at NASA, Yazzie designs mechanisms for acquiring geological samples from other planets.

It was a momentous day for Aaron Yazzie when NASA’s InSight lander touched ground on the surface of Mars. The Navajo mechanical engineer built the pressure inlet for the unmanned InSight (that stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport”).

“It was hooked up to a pressure sensor to get a fixed reading of Mars’ atmospheric pressure,” Yazzie told Native Business of his hardware. When InSight landed in November 2018, “I got immediate confirmation that it was working fine.”

That moment — equal parts relief and celebration — marked a significant milestone for 33-year-old Yazzie, who started working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, in September 2008.

Yazzie waited nearly nine months for InSight to travel 140-million miles from Earth to Mars, accomplishing NASA’s eighth successful spacecraft landing on the fourth rock from the sun. While Yazzie didn’t work on the descent and landing, his pressure inlet is playing a pivotal part in InSight’s two-year exploration. InSight is probing into the Martian ground to get useful science about the planet’s interior.

While Yazzie watched the landing with bated breath, he completed his construction of the pressure inlet for InSight nearly four years ago. Yazzie will continue to stay involved with missions to Mars.

Today Yazzie is focused on “Mars 2020” — the next Mars Rover project. Yazzie is the lead engineer for drill bits. He’ll determine “how to control the drill and arm to acquire samples” from the red-rock surface of Mars. That project is slated for completion in May.

“The Rover is going to drive around and drill into rocks and scoop up soil samples and save them, so that eventually we can bring them back to Earth. It’ll be the first time that we bring anything back to Earth from Mars,” he said with enthusiasm.

Yazzie added: “I may even be in a control room to do operations while in flight.”

Coincidentally, Mars’ crust reminds Yazzie of the Navajo Nation.

“My family is from Tuba City, [Arizona] and every time I go back, it looks so similar. That’s something that I’ve been learning — that Earth and Mars are not that different,” Yazzie told Native Business.

InSight’s findings are expected to shed light on the formation of Mars, Earth and even rocky exoplanets.

“Earth and Mars are both the same type of planet; they are both rocky planets; they have the core, the mantle, and the crust; and the landscape that exists there developed the same way that ours did. That’s the way that I like to explain it to other Navajos, in order to bring it home and show that it’s relevant to them. When we study Mars, we’re studying ourselves. We’re learning about terrestrial planets and how land forms form, and that’s important to us — knowing where we come from. We have a tie to the land, and knowing how things originate and how they come to be.”

Landing a Job at NASA

Yazzie has been actively involved with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) since high school. “Every step of the way, the organization was helping me. I got a scholarship for college and internships through AISES. Two of those were at NASA centers. Having those two internships at NASA centers really helped me when I applied to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). I met the recruiter for JPL at the AISES conference,” Yazzie shared.

As a mechanical engineer, Yazzie’s primary job is to design hardware and other mechanisms — a high-responsibility role, Yazzie noted. “They wait for you to prove yourself before they give you a role like that,” he said of NASA.  

“Up until this point, I had been supporting tests here on Earth. They call it ground-support equipment when it’s helping either test flight hardware or build flight hardware for something that will fly into space,” he said.

Gravitating toward a career in engineering was second-nature to Yazzie, who was raised in Holbrook in Navajo County, Arizona. He was always constructing things, and one time he even built a hot air balloon.

It also helped that his mom teaches math, and his dad is a civil engineer who works for the Arizona Department of Transportation. “Both of them were the first people in their families to venture out and get a college education,” Yazzie said. “I always tell people that that’s where my journey began, because I was born into this platform of knowing that I was going to go to college, because my parents always told me I was going to.”

Yazzie, a middle child, counts two brothers — both based in Phoenix. His older brother works in construction management for companies that build hospitals and schools. His younger brother Jared Yazzie owns OXDX Clothing.  

Yazzie gives back to his Navajo community through speaking engagements, and he’s involved in leading a NASA-Navajo summer camp. “It’s a really cool program. Daniella Scalice, the Education and Communications Lead at the NASA Astrobiology Program, co-founded the NASA and the Navajo Nation Program. She started this initiative to work with Navajo educators to come up with a curriculum where they teach you NASA science from both the NASA science perspective and the Navajo side — the origins of constellations and the origins of land forms and stuff like that.” 

NASA Culture & Recruitment

NASA’s most recent diversity report shows 21 Native Americans work at NASA Centers.

Yazzie has chosen to increase his involvement in recruitment “and trying to get NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to go to the AISES conference,” he said. “We went to SACNAS [Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science] a while back, and I think that we become popular at those conferences, because seeing a Mars Rover is kind of like a buzzword. It’s catchy and people recognize it. To see that a Native American helped work on it is good publicity. The Native community is really responding well to that, and it’s becoming an inspirational story. Hopefully, it leads to people wanting to work at a place like this, and understanding that they can and have the ability to do so,” Yazzie told Native Business.

Outgrowing Imposter Syndrome

While today Yazzie is confident and enjoys sharing his story as a Navajo working at NASA both via his website, NASA’s website, and social media handles (check out @YazzieSays on Twitter), that wasn’t always the case.

“For the longest time, I thought that they would figure out that I don’t belong here and fire me,” he said.

He felt the same way when he started studying at Stanford University. “When I got there, I was thinking that they had made a mistake on me. It took so much effort to get in, that afterward, the fear sinks in that you have to perform to stay there,” Yazzie shared.

Native Business asked Yazzie a few questions about finally recognizing his accomplishments, his advice for up-and-coming Native professionals, and staying rooted and connected to his culture while working on high-pressure projects.

NBM: When did you first feel like you had finally made it?  

AY: Well, there were a couple of moments — one was getting [my flight hardware] on the rocket and launching it, because some of the harshest environments that a [mechanical] part will endure is during launch. The entire spacecraft shakes and the environment is crazy, so you have to design to these high, crazy dynamic loads.

The next time was when I saw my first flight hardware — that I built myself and designed myself as a NASA employee — actually land on Mars.

NBM: What advice would you offer to Native youth who dream of working at NASA?

AY: Take it in small steps. Take a summer course to learn about engineering to see if you like a certain field over another. The next summer, try to get a job or internship in that area. That helps you to step into the next opportunity, and each opportunity opens more and more doors.

If you asked me a long time ago if I dreamt of working at NASA, I don’t know if I would have said yes. It didn’t feel like an opportunity that was open to me. It felt like it was too big. Every time I did a summer program or got a scholarship, I realized that this dream was becoming more and more real.

My advice to youth is to start planning out now where you want to end up, and make those good decisions, and take hold of your own future.

NBM: How do you handle work-life balance?

AY: Los Angeles is a great place to live and there’s a lot to do, like concerts and shows. We live close to some great mountains, so whenever I can, I will go snowboarding or go hiking or backpacking.

Another large portion of my life is doing those outreach activities. That may mean traveling to a school to do a talk.

I feel very fortunate that I’m in this situation. It’s a great job and it’s not that far from my home community. I try to go home as often as possible. I made a promise to myself that I didn’t want my family to not see me at family events and to forget that I’m part of the family. I make it back for every Thanksgiving, Christmas, wedding and ceremony.