Pinoy engineer in Perseverance journey credits Baguio schooling for science roots


Posted at Feb 19 2021 06:53 PM | Updated as of Feb 20 2021 01:30 AM

Gregorio Galgana Villar has been thrust into the spotlight for playing a key role in the Perseverance rover landing on Mars. 

But Villar, born to Filipino parents, wanted to make it clear — he wasn't the only Filipino who worked on the historic mission. 

"There are other Filipinos who worked on Perseverance as well. Not just me," Villar said in an exclusive interview on Teleradyo Friday.

The Baguio-raised Villar was tasked to oversee the successful entry, descent and landing of Perseverance on Mars.

"This is very complicated because you'll see in the videos, because when we get to Mars, we're travelling at close to 12,000 mph, which is really really fast," he said.

The 33-year-old was born in the United States, but he spent some time with his father in Baguio when he was 13.

"My mom's family is from Tandang Sora in Manila. Dad's family from Taguig. At the time my dad lived in Baguio, when I turned 13 or so. It was one of the best decisions ever, I've get to really experience the roots of my culture. Spent a lot of time with my family there and build a foundation to allow me to succeed," Villar said.

It was a long journey to NASA, he said. 

"I was a high-schooler in Baguio City. I was very good at math and science. I was a big nerd. Still a nerd. That's not a bad thing 'cause nerds rule the world now," Villar said.

"I represented my school in math and science Olympiad if I remember. When I came back to the US, I studied physics. When I was in college I applied for a NASA scholarship."

He secured an internship at a jet propulsion laboratory then spent 2 years doing research in astrophysics. Later, he got a masters in Astronautical Engineering at University of Southern California.

"I was able to work on the Curiousity Rover . . . Then moved to on Perseverance in 2013. So I've been working on Perseverance for 8 years. It's been quite a journey," Villar said.

He said a big part of his NASA journey came from his high school education.

"I thank part of my education in the Philippines for that. I studied so much in the Philippines, my foundation in math and physics because of my teachers there in high school," he said.

Villar's achievement was shared on Twitter by the US Embassy in the Philippines.

'7 minutes of terror'

The hulking, multibillion-dollar NASA rover Perseverance Rover is the latest robot to inhabit Mars. It landed safely on the Red Planet after a 300-million-mile journey from Earth.

Villar said landing was extremely complicated since it can be affected by a lot of factors. 

"It's known as the '7 minutes of terror.' That's what entry, decent and landing is. We enter the atmosphere of Mars, we descend the atmosphere and we land," he said.

"We go to the atmosphere and it causes friction to slow us down... Then after that, we use a really really big parachute, it's called the 
super sonic parachute. We eject it at super sonic speed, faster than the speed of sound. After that, we separate the heat shield that covers the spacecraft. The Rover comes down on rockets; It has its own jet pack. The jet pack lowers the Rover, it separates the Rover on its cables. It safely touches the ground, then the jet pack flies away."

"All of that is extremely complicated with thousands of things happening left and right," Villar explained. "There's so many things that can go wrong in those 7 minutes. It's extremely frightening, extremely nerve-racking."

Villar said part of Perseverance's purpose is to help scientists understand the destination planet.

"Mars is our neighboring planet, and we only want to understand what happened to it so maybe we can understand what would happen to our world," he said.

The 33-year-old said he has always dreamt of becoming an astronaut and being part of the team that sent Perseverance partly fulfilled that dream.

"The dream is to go to space someday, maybe even Mars... It's just cool right? Like another planet, like outer space. Things that we we grow up watching in movies like 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars'. Just the idea of going to another planet is really really awesome," he said.

Work not yet done

Villar said Perseverance is just the first of 3 or 4 missions to Mars.

He explained they will have to retrieve the samples Perseverance will collect from that planet.

"Perseverance is going to spend the next Mars year... collecting samples. So when that's done, there's actually another project currently being worked on called the sample retrieval lander," he said.

"We will send another small rover and a little rocket. For the first time, we're going to try to launch a little rocket from Mars up into orbit. That ball (that contains samples) will stay in Martian orbit. We'll get another mission to Mars to go and collect that sample and bring it back to Earth."