of Honduran and Mexican roots makes history with the launch of Perseverance to Mars in 2020.
Luis Dominguez is a member of the NASA team that cleared a path to space exploration for the world. For young students of color who look to see themselves in this field of work, the engineer—who made history in 2020 with the launch of the Perseverance rover to Mars—makes time to serve as a conduit between the world of science and young, impressionable minds. The Central American Historical and Ancestral Society of California (CAHAAS) met with Luis to learn and document his experience navigating cultures, career, and his history-making achievement with NASA for the 100 Central American Historical Biography project on August 29, 2021.
We begin with Luis receiving a call from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) offering him an internship. At the time, he is in his last year at CalPoly Pomona. “They were one of the first to call me,” Luis said. He described the call, “Hello...yes, this is Luis Dominguez.” On the other end of the call, he heard, “I’m calling from JPL about the internship.” “Who?” he asked. “I quickly Googled them” and realized they were part of NASA. “I definitely wanted to work for them,” he added. Luis recalls this time and laughs, but about this particular experience, he later reflects how coming from a “deprived socioeconomic background” limits your exposure to life outside your community. The city of Pasadena was just as foreign to him as JPL.
Luis Antonio Dominguez was born to Cecilia Dominguez and Luis Antonio Dominguez, senior on December 2, 1987, at Los Angeles County Hospital. His parents raised Luis and two younger brothers in South Central Los Angeles. He attended Vermont Elementary, Audubon Middle School, and Westchester High School’s magnet program. At CalPoly Pomona he maintained, for the most part, a 3.9 grade point average, all while working part-time jobs throughout his time in school. He even worked as a gardener with an uncle to pay for tuition, eventually earning his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2009.
About his childhood, Luis recalls being an avid “reader of outdated encyclopedias and almanacs” and considered himself a “loner,” opting to hang out in the library during lunch. His parents worked hard to make ends meet and worked long hours. This called for Luis to play an active role in looking after his two younger brothers, David and Carlos, who are five and seven years younger than Luis. With their parents at work all day, he walked David and Carlos home from school, took them to sports practice, and helped them with homework. Now they are college graduates with degrees in law and medicine.
Luis loves playing video games and watching the past hit show The Office. He finds inspiration in Howard Zinn’s telling of history and wonderment in the Mesoamerican civilization. He listens to various music genres, attributing his exposure to music to another uncle, a Los Angeles DJ, who would take him to gigs where Latin American classics played from groups like Los Angeles Negros which became Luis’ favorite.
Despite the rich cultural diversity within South Central Los Angeles, his parents had the most cultural influence on Luis. His mother is Mexican from Metlapa, Guerrero and his father is from Salamá Olancho, Honduras. Luis grew up “learning the cultural nuances” of his parents' different backgrounds. He recalls how he and his brothers straddled “living on both sides of the fence” as Latin Americans. He gave a fun example of how he handled areas of contention, like when his family made him choose which soccer team he supported between Honduras and Mexico. He said, “I always chose the US...I was born here. You know I don’t need to cause any drama.”
Luis was only four years old when he traveled to Mexico and Honduras to visit his grandparents. In Guerrero, Mexico he met his mother’s father, Napoleon Dominguez. His grandmother Rita had already passed away in the early 1980s from cancer. Luis said, “I remember...riding my grandfather’s horses and stuff and visiting his land.” But other than when his family was involved in a tragic ‘combi’ (a combi is a form of public transportation, also known as microbus) accident, he hardly remembers anything else about his visit to Mexico. Then, they traveled down to Honduras, where it was visible that his father’s mother, Virginia lived in greater poverty. Her condition left an indelible mark on Luis. “I wish I could have known them better,” as he laments the distance between them. Family separation is difficult for immigrant families. Luis is grateful for meeting his grandparents at least once in his life because they passed away before his siblings could travel to meet them.
His parents' exemplary work ethic helps him navigate life and career. He describes his mother as one of the most resourceful human beings he has ever known. She loves learning and enrolls in adult education programs offered in her community. She has a plethora of educational certificates, from flower design to hair styling, even if her new skills and techniques are rarely put into practice.
Then, there is Mr. Dominguez who works as a car mechanic. “[He] is the type of mechanic that could just listen to a car and can tell you what’s wrong with it...he’s got that second nature of understanding cars” Luis said. “I wanted to be like that with airplanes.” At one point, Mr. Dominguez was going to study civil engineering in Honduras. However, the political climate became increasingly difficult to focus on an education—in Honduras, forced recruitment into military service loomed over men his age—so he decided it was best to leave for the United States.
“My family really valued education. I understood that I was going to go to college,” said Luis. His parents provided a substantial support system, but the challenge growing up was overcoming the stresses of being raised in a deprived socioeconomic environment.
Courage was the one thing that took me the longest to develop. For a long time, I didn’t have courage. I didn’t apply to the MIT's or any of the big schools because I didn’t think I was worth it. I didn’t think I could hang. And, I only applied to CSU's because they were free. I could apply to five for free. And all I had to do was submit my general information, my transcripts. CalPoly Pomona was the first to accept me, and I kind of just said, ‘oh, this is great — a school wants me.’ Ya, it took me a while to see value in myself, which I think is probably something that is very difficult to achieve, especially when you come from a deprived socioeconomic background. I would have never thought that I could be where I am at today. It’s not anything I could have imagined. Having the courage to stand up for that.
Luis's challenges during his formative years undoubtedly shaped his character and helped him get through tough times. When he arrived at JPL as an intern in 2007, he struggled with imposter syndrome. He felt unqualified. And yet, he cleared a path forward, allowing him to partake on NASA’s most important mission to date—the Mars 2020 Mission. The Washington Post described the mission as “one of the hardest technological feats human beings have ever attempted.” And, it is like “throwing a dart from the White House and scoring a bull’s eye in Dallas.”
JPL sits on 177 acres near Pasadena, California, along the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley. Driving from the 210 West freeway, it appears to be either an enormous factory or a small town. According to the JPL website, they are a research, development, and flight center for NASA and have 6,000 staff members at the center on any given day. Early in Luis’ career at JPL, he commuted from South Central to work on the Mars Science Laboratory project, a.k.a. Curiosity, the first mini-sized rover to Mars, in 2009. Luis explained how “this project was considered the precursor to Perseverance.”
Curiosity was the first rover mission Luis worked on at JPL. “And there, I kind of learned my chops. I worked on the team that pulled together the test rover that we have here on Earth that we call M.A.G.G.I.E.,” he explained. Soon after, NASA started on the Perseverance project. “I wasn’t initially involved in the first phase of the [Perseverance] project. But once I got an opportunity to work on all the motors and actuators, I got re-involved—testing and
selecting all the actuators that we were going to use for the spacecraft, putting them through qualification programs, developing qualification programs,” Luis recalls. “I got the opportunity to be the Deputy electrical lead for the flight vehicle. I jumped at that!”
Luis was asked what he thought about finding life in space or aliens. “I believe our perception is being transformed of what intelligent life is because we are finding more and more things that we thought were so basic, so primordial, so unintelligent, actually have some incredible intelligence within them...” Luis said. “They probably won’t be the walking kind at first. It is probably going to be a big glob of gook or something like that.” The question is asked again of finding aliens in space. He said that would be a “game changer,” leading to “a lot of soul searching for a lot of different belief structures.”
He is an experienced pathfinder who continues to forge new paths in science and for young students. He has mentored through the Adelante Youth Alliance program in Pasadena, and on his own, knowing that Latinx remain underrepresented in STEM workplaces. Only 8 percent of all STEM workers are Latinos. Representation is a "powerful way of getting kids to do stuff” and “exposing them to different ideas is key.” JPL is roughly 20 miles from South Central Los Angeles, a 25 minute car ride, but it may have well been in outer space at one time for Luis. To students, he says, “the world is much bigger than the world you are in...don’t let that world close in on you.” His message for them is to go out and learn, to explore.
As for Luis today, he remains with NASA’s JPL as a Systems Integration & Test Engineer and advocates for increasing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the workplace. His future is just as bright and busy as his trajectory has been at JPL. Soon he and his fiance will embark on a trip overseas to Europe, where he will fulfill a fellowship with the German Marshall Fund to “foster transatlantic relations.” This prestigious leadership development program is a public policy think tank that will benefit greatly from his life experience and world perspective. At the same time, this new experience will better prepare him to serve the public for the greater good, whether at NASA or if he decides to explore politics or the nonprofit sector.
Learn more about Luis Antonio Dominguez by requesting the full interview from the 100 Central American Historical Biography collection. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Luis A. Dominguez interview August 29, 2021.