Rodriguez and Tessa Lucas,
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
shares cultural heritage, works together on NASA space programs
Rodriguez and Tessa Lucas work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight
Center in Huntsville, Ala. They celebrated their 25th wedding
anniversary in 2002.|
Sept. 26, 2002
- He fled Castro's Cuba as a child. She made a less dramatic, but
long journey from the Philippines. Their love for art, science and
science fiction brought them together in high school. Now this married
couple works on key NASA programs at the Marshall Center.
In 1961, 6-year-old
Rick Rodriguez, his little brother Guillermo, and his mother came
to America -- fleeing Castro’s Cuba and leaving behind his
father, a political prisoner.
earlier, 3-year-old Tessa Lucas made a less dramatic journey to
America from her native Philippines. She came with her Philippine
mother, and her father, a U.S. Marine.
These two voyagers
crossed the Atlantic and Pacific from different parts of the world
and arrived in America at the dawn of the space age. Eventually,
their love for art and science would bring them together. They would
date, get married and work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight
Center in Huntsville, Ala. — the high-tech town called “The
Rocket City” because it was where scientists built the mighty
rockets that took humans to the Moon.
Like many people
who grew up in the sixties, both Rodriguez and Lucas were fascinated
by America’s race to the Moon.
watching Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon with my grandfather and
other members of my family,” said Rodriguez. “After escaping
the hardships of Cuba where my father was still in prison on the
Island of Pines, the fact that an American was on the Moon seemed
both incredible and promising.”
tabs on America’s space race from his home in Durham where
his mother, Silvia Carballo who taught Spanish at North Carolina
Central University, still resides.
space at schools on North Carolina’s coast -- first in Jacksonville,
where her father, Capt. Harry A. Lucas was stationed at nearby Camp
LeJeune and later in Swansboro, a small beachside town. Her father
still resides in Jacksonville. (Lucas’ mother Rubi Liss lives
in Gretna, La., with her stepfather Ray Liss.)
country was gripped by the journey to the Moon,” said Lucas.
“North Carolina elementary schools used the space program to
teach us science. I remember coloring the parts of rocket engines
and learning how they worked, and riding in helicopters on field
Lucas finally crossed paths as rising high school seniors in 1972,
when they both were selected for the Governor’s School of North
Carolina, an interdisciplinary, summer school program at Salem College
in Winston-Salem. They met at a lecture on the connection between
art and science. They discovered they had a lot in common, including
a love for theater, music and science -- and a shared Spanish heritage.
Their first date was at a festival that featured a variety of foods,
and they both found they favored spicy foods similar to the Cuban
and Philippine dishes their mothers made.
colonized the Philippines, and my mother’s maiden name, Alviar,
is Spanish,” said Lucas. “So even though people think
of the Philippines as an Asian-Pacific country, the culture has
many Spanish influences.”
Lucas got to know each other better – first through letters
and later through dates while Lucas was studying sociology at the
University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Rodriguez was majoring
in aerospace engineering at nearby North Carolina State University
in Raleigh. Space first came into their lives when Rodriguez joined
the Marshall Center as a cooperative education student in 1976.
model airplanes and rockets,” said Rodriguez. “I wanted
to design and build airplanes, but the airplane industry was really
slow at the time. I didn’t even know there was a NASA space
center in Alabama, but when I saw the position at the Marshall Space
Flight Center, I thought, ‘It’s rockets, its flying,’
so I applied.”
building rockets, Rodriguez worked with the people who fly in them.
He helped design and build software and facilities for the Marshall
Center’s Operations Division, which specialized in training
astronauts for space missions. He served as a diver in a 40-foot
deep-water tank at Marshall used to train astronauts for space walks.
helping astronauts prepare for missions,” Rodriguez said. “It
was just a step away from being in space.”
In 1978, Rodriguez
and Lucas married and moved to Huntsville. Rodriguez’s love
for space was contagious.
earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University
of North Carolina, went back to school to study computer science
so that she could play a role in the high-tech research going on
Rodriguez embarked on the first steps of his 17-year career supporting
NASA’s space missions. Working as a NASA contractor, he helped
design and outfit the Payload Crew Training Complex at the Marshall
Center. Inside this facility, Rodriguez trained space crews to perform
science experiments in Spacelab – a research laboratory that
made numerous trips to space in the Shuttle’s payload bay in
the 1980s and ‘90s.
In 1995, Rodriguez
became one of a select group of people who get to talk to astronauts
in space. As an alternate payload specialist for the Astro-2 astronomy
mission flown on the Space Shuttle STS-67 mission, he conversed
with crew members as they operated an ultraviolet telescope located
in the Shuttle’s payload bay. For another important NASA science
mission, Rodriguez helped teach astronaut John Glenn how to perform experiments during his historic return to space on the STS-95 flight
in November 1998.
But one of
Rodriguez’s most exhilarating personal experiences was watching
a Space Shuttle launch with his father, Guillermo Rodriguez, who
finally was released from a Cuban prison and moved to the United
States in 1979.
out of Cuba was like coming out of a time warp for my dad,”
said Rodriguez. “Seeing a Wal-Mart was a cultural shock. My
dad was a carpenter who built boats. So the Space Shuttle was truly
an amazing ship to him. And seeing it lift off was so magnificent
that it almost seemed unreal.”
In his current
position as a Shuttle Operations Coordinator supporting the Marshall
Center Flight Projects Directorate, Rodriguez writes procedures
and trains crew members who transfer science experiments and equipment
from the Space Shuttle to the International Space Station. When
a Shuttle is docked with the Space Station, he works on console
in the NASA’s Payload Operations Center – the command
post for science operations on the Space Station – monitoring
the payloads as they are moved and answering questions from the
In 1990, Lucas
began her 12-year career supporting NASA’s missions when she
joined the staff of Teledyne Brown Engineering – the Huntsville
aerospace company that now also employs Rodriguez. A year later,
she graduated summa cum laude from the University of Alabama in
Huntsville with a bachelor’s degree in management information
For a while,
Rodriguez and Lucas conversed easily at the dinner table using Space
Station acronyms, because she was designing information systems
with data supplied by scientists and engineers building experiment
equipment for the Space Station. Now, she is in what she calls an
“acronym transition,” just starting work on new computer
systems for NASA’s Space Launch Initiative -- a program developing
technologies to support a second-generation reusable launch vehicle
that could eventually replace the Shuttle.
programmer, you are never supposed to fall in love with the data,”
said Lucas. “You are supposed to focus on organizing and structuring
information efficiently. While I do love the mathematical and problem-solving
nature of my job, I must confess, I’m in love with the data.
It’s Buck-Rogers-in-the-21st-century data. It’s like living
the science fiction stories that I love.”
as Rodriguez and Lucas celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary,
their careers with NASA were helping others who are flying high
on the International Space Station and designing rocket ships that
will take the next generation farther and faster than today.
and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight