SLU grad has a key role in Mars Perseverance landing

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ST. LOUIS–At about 3pm Central Time Thursday, we’ll find out if man is a step closer to realizing something Fernando Abilleira has been dreaming about for his entire life.

Abilleira is the Mars 2020 Deputy Mission Manager for Launch through Landing, meaning that he’s played a key role in both designing the craft that launched in July, but also in executing the maneuvers needed to land the rover Perseverance on the Red Planet Thursday.

Abilleira earned his bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from Saint Louis University‘s Parks College and later his masters degree there as well.

A visit to a NASA deep space facility in his hometown of Madrid as a young child clinched his interest in what else was out there in the universe.

“I was fascinated….this looks like science fiction, but it was real,” he said from a control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he’ll be monitoring Thursday’s landing. “I was only 7 years old then and at that time I felt like I had to do something, I felt like that was my calling, right? Someday I wanted to be part of the people that were pushing the envelope, making discoveries about our place in the universe.”

Abilleira didn’t have to go far to get started on an education that would lead to where he is now. He enrolled at SLU-Madrid and later Saint Louis University’s Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology.

“They’re really good at what they do,” he said of his professors and mentors at SLU. “They gave me the tools to get ready for this job and obviously it worked…Great opportunities, great program, fantastic teachers…they definitely gave me the toolkit to get where I wanted to be.”

His graduate thesis was focused on “Optimizing Trajectories between Earth and Mars,” but later expanded to how man would get from here to there. His proposal won an award, earned him a meeting with legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and caught the eyes of NASA, where started working in 2001.

He moved to the JPL in 2004, and has worked on three Mars projects since then, leading Abilleira to dub it his “pet planet.”

If the landing Thursday is a success, Abilleira says he hopes to be part of a fourth, which would be a years-long effort to design and build a mission to bring samples collected by Perseverance back to Earth.

But first things first….you have to stick the landing, and we’re all in it together, he said.

“We’re all flying on this spacecraft. This is a journey of human kind. We’re going to be landing in a location in the universe that no human being has seen before. That is incredible, and I’m incredibly honored, I’m very humbled to make my contribution to this project.”

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