Mark Gonzales has always been fascinated on how things work, a childhood passion that led him to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) where his team played a role in the successful landing of Perseverance rover on the planet Mars.
Gonzales, the 33-year-old son of Edgardo Gonzales and Beatriz Salvador, was part of the group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that verified the rover’s Vision Compute Element image processing algorithms.
“When you hear about Terrain Relative Navigation, I helped test that the image processing portion was acting as expected,” he said.
Simply put, Gonzales’ group helped the rover land safely by taking photos and looking for any obstacles that will allow the computer determine what the best course of action is.
“Pretty much our team worked on the ‘obstacle avoidance’ component of the mission,” he said.
In recognition, the names and signatures of those involved in the project, including Gonzales’ were etched in the body of the Perseverance rover.
His family moved to the United States in the early eighties and returned in 1996 in an attempt to settle in the Philippines permanently.
Gonzales finished elementary at Southville International School in Las Piñas before his family relocated in the US anew in 2000.
He said his father, a mechanic, and grandfather (Dan Salvador Jr.), an engineer, helped him gain appreciation for learning how things work at the age of 5.
“At a young age, I would love to take things apart so my hobbies revolve around tinkering with whatever I could get my hands on,” said Gonzales, whose mother belongs to the prominent Salvador-Llamas clan of Parañaque.
He narrated how he fiddled with the family’s VCR to find out how it worked and ended up blowing it up.
“It was one of the turning points into helping me want to learn about what exactly I’m doing,” Gonzales said.
“Fortunately, my mom and grandpa are engineers so they helped guide me to the right path.”
He was eight years old when he watched the movie Armageddon, a story about how NASA astronauts saved the Earth from a collision with a large asteroid.
“I’ve always dreamt of working for NASA. I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut but engineer was a close second,” he said.
Magna cum laude
Gonzales graduated magna cum laude at the California Polytechnic University and is currently working on his master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California.
Before joining NASA three years ago, Gonzales had stints at the Department of National Defense, Boeing and Teledyne.
He said he found a NASA job posting online and was granted a couple of phone interviews.
“Then I was invited to the lab for a day which consisted of several interviews with half a dozen people.
Fortunately, they thought I was perfect for the job and the rest is history,” Gonzales said.
The Disneyland-sized compound hosting JPL is located in Pasadena, about 40 minutes away from his house in Chino, California.
“It was a dream come true. Seeing Mission Control for the first time and being next to billion-dollar pieces of equipment was surreal,” he said.
He takes pride in the work done for Perseverance, a 15-month worth of hard work.
“One of the primary issues that we encountered initially was that some of the Image Processing algorithms were producing erroneous results, so that was very scary since if we got it wrong, then we probably would not be able to land,” Gonzales explained.
“Fortunately, I worked with very talented individuals who spent night and day perfecting everything.”
Currently, Gonzales is the Test Software Lead for the upcoming Psyche mission with 10 people under him.
The probe will be sent to an asteroid next year.
“We are tasked with making sure the Psyche Compute Element (the spacecraft’s main brain) is working as intended.
So a lot of writing code, tinkering with electronics and a whole lot of meetings,” he said.
Gonzales believes that Filipinos are more than capable of running their own space program.
“I’ll say absolutely! Every Filipino that I’ve met in my career is extremely hard working and very technically capable.
I’m 100 percent sure that we would excel if we started our own space program,” he said.
Gonzales lives with his parents and grandmother.
“It’s nice always having Filipino food around the house,” said Gonzales.
“One thing we can’t get over here is isaw.
I loved having that with a cold San Mig Light whenever I visit the Philippines.”
Outside work, Gonzales said he’s into mountain biking and occasional golf rounds.
One thing that he has not found time to tinker with is his golf swing.
“I really hope Tito Jon can visit over here so he can give me some tips,” said Gonzales, referring to his uncle Dan Salvador III, a former golf club general manager and junior standout.
Gonzales, still a bachelor, drives a 2015 Mercedes Benz CLA 250 which he calls his baby.
“I maintain it, but if there’s any engine work I can’t do myself, my dad always helps me out,” he said.