You may have seen the story of Psychic missionin which NASA is preparing to launch a spacecraft that will go to an asteroid in search of information that may reveal some of the secrets of the universe.
But I’m going to tell you a story about another journey. It’s about how Luis Dominguez, the son of immigrants from Mexico and Honduras, traveled from South Los Angeles to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he helped build the Psyche spacecraft.
Dominguez, 34, is the eldest of three boys born to Luis and Cecilia Dominguez. His father is an auto mechanic, and Louis went with him to his father’s shop whenever he could, sometimes intervening. His mother worked as a housekeeper for a while, and as a boy, Dominguez also worked with her.
His education began at Vermont Elementary School in LA Unified and later at Audubon High School, where he said he was not the best student in the building. But when a seventh-grade classmate brought a book about flying to class, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“I was fascinated and said, ‘OK, I want to work with aircraft,'” Dominguez said. He went to Westchester High School, which had an aerospace magnet.
Dominguez told me that he gets up at 5 am and the bus ride to school takes about an hour. Knowing what he wants to do with his life has made him more focused and his GPA has skyrocketed. On campus career day, a visiting California State professor advised him to consider majoring in mechanical engineering in college rather than aerospace because it would give him more job opportunities.
“Louis walked in the door and said, ‘Hey, what can I do? Hey, let me help you with that.”
— David Gruell, Engineer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
And so he did – at the California Proving Ground in Pomona. Dominguez lived at home to save money. He commuted to college daily, spent a few hours in his spare time at the store and sandwich shop, and worked as a gardener and helped out at his father’s car shop in Inglewood.
“In my freshman year, we had a job fair and there was a JPL, and to be honest, I didn’t even know what a JPL was. I was just handing out my resume to everyone,” said Dominguez, who at the time had a GPA of 3.98 and was looking for an internship. “I got a call back pretty quickly and was asked who is JPL? I searched the internet and thought, oh, this is the NASA space center. It’s pretty cool.”
In the fall of 2007, Dominguez was appointed as a part-time trainee trainee at JPL Engineer David Grewellled the team that assembled the Mars Science Laboratory for Curiosity Mission. According to Grauel, many student interns are passive or introverted. Not Dominguez.
Louis came through the door and said, “Hey, what can I do? Hey, let me help you with that.” You could tell he was excited to be where he was and wanted to contribute, and he was open and willing to take on any task we asked him to do,” Grauel said. “So, his first JPL experience was overseeing the construction of a rover that was supposed to land on the surface of Mars.”
When the internship ended and Dominguez graduated from Cal Poly Pomona, his heart was set on a career at JPL. He remembers saying to Gruel, “Just hire me. I will wash the floors. I’ll do anything.”
Gruelle has seen Dominguez evolve from an intern from small tasks to technical support for Curiosity engineers.
“I could tell that Luis would be a catch and that JPL would definitely benefit by hiring him as a full-time engineer,” Gruel said.
Dominguez entered JPL straight out of college and has been there ever since. He was Deputy Electrical Integration and Testing Supervisor at Mars Perseverance Mars rover launched in 2020. He is now the lead electrical engineer on the Psyche satellite, overseeing a crew of five, and will be in Florida when Psyche launches in August from Cape Canaveral.
The Psyche team includes dozens of engineers and support staff. Essentially, Dominguez and his team are building the ship’s electronic components. They take components made at JPL and around the world, put everything together and test it.
“In short, we build a spacecraft, we put it in an environment where we shake it, bake it, and then blow it with compressed air to create the acoustic environment that you get during launch,” Dominguez said.
The ship will fly in space for many years and arrive at its destination – an asteroid known as 16 Psyche – in 2026. Asteroid mining considered a future prospect, Dominguez said, but he is more interested in the main aspect of the mission.
“The most interesting thing about this is that it is the largest metallic asteroid that we know of, and all evidence indicates that it is likely the core of the failed planet,” Dominguez said. “We can get a better idea of what the core of the Earth might look like, which we have never been able to do.”
On Monday at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dominguez and others were putting the finishing touches on the spacecraft. At the media day, I ran into Brian Bone, Build, Test, and Launch Manager.
“Louis was a key player,” Bone said. “I have seen few people who put in so much work, whether you ask them to or not. He’s all in and he’s always happy to be here.”
Dominguez, who is engaged to a woman he met years ago when they both worked at McDonald’s, will soon be moving with the JPL team to Florida for the summer. He gave up renting his downtown Los Angeles apartment and temporarily moved into the brown-stucco home where he spent most of his youth, in an area southwest of USC.
When I visited him there, his parents were away visiting relatives in Mexico and Honduras, but I managed to speak to them on the phone.
According to his mother Cecilia, he was always a smart kid and worked hard.
“I never had any doubts that he could do it,” said his father, who is proud of all three sons. One of Luis’s younger brothers is a medical assistant and the other is a paralegal who intends to become a lawyer.
Dominguez told me that while at JPL, he developed another passion.
“One of the things I’m most excited about is being able to work with the community and talk to kids about what I’m doing, especially kids from where I’m from,” he said.
Last fall, Dominguez was recognized motivational speaker in a communication shared with students, faculty, and staff of the California State system. The Cal Poly graduate told his story from the chancellor’s office in Long Beach, noting that he needed to focus to become a top student in high school. He credits his parents with showing him the value of self-sacrifice and hard work.
“I never thought I would help send two one-ton robots and a helicopter to Mars,” he told his audience, describing himself as “a first-generation college student and a proud child of immigrants.”
His advice to every student was to shoot high, take risks, not be afraid of failure, and live “with courage, curiosity, perseverance, and a healthy dose of altruism, because those principles are what got me to where I am now.”
Named in 2017 by CNET en Español as one of the 20 Most Influential Hispanics in Technology, Dominguez concluded this as follows:
“Like the universe, every person is filled with endless abilities and endless possibilities, genius, regardless of their background, regardless of their zip code, regardless of their financial situation. It is our responsibility as leaders to find that genius, fire it up and let it shine, because after all, genius is everywhere.”
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