For Hispanic Heritage Month, Johnson Space Center is honoring a few employees whose character and culture have helped shape them into the people they are today.
Little Dorothy Ruiz-Martinez was always looking up—first at the stars from the top of her grandparents’ house in the city of Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, Mexico—and then a bit later to watch Space Shuttle Challenger
and its failed ascent. That pivotal tragedy would forever shape her future.
“I remember I was sitting and wondering … what happened?” said Ruiz-Martinez, an International Space Station ground controller (GC) in the Mission Control Center. “I was 8 years old.”
Ruiz-Martinez was hungry for answers no one could give her, like why the shuttle had exploded, how did one fly a rocket … the mechanics of these mystical machines that shepherded brave explorers into space.
“I think I knew after that I wanted to be in space field somehow,” Ruiz-Martinez recalled.
However, going from a dream-chasing youngster growing up with her grandparents to a woman with a burgeoning career in a technical field was quite a leap—even for the determined Ruiz-Martinez. Her dream was against all odds due to her family’s history with women’s education. Her great grandmother had never learned to read and write, and her grandmother only made it to third grade.
Since her grandmother lacked an education, she was very encouraging when Ruiz-Martinez worked to obtain one.
“It helps when someone like a mentor leads you into thinking education is important,” Ruiz-Martinez said.
After finishing ninth grade in Mexico, Ruiz-Martinez came to the United States, learning English as a second language. This was when the doors really began to swing wide open.
“My Spanish teacher saw some kind of talent in me,” Ruiz-Martinez said. “I was good in math, science and overall academics. She kind of took me in as a support system.”
Ruiz-Martinez didn’t keep her learning limited to books. She knew that to become a well-rounded individual, extracurricular activities and volunteerism were also profoundly important.
“I’m a big believer that we can influence the leadership in this country,” Ruiz-Martinez said.
Her influence started in her small sphere, then enlarged as she moved forward to obtain her goals.
After attending the University of Oklahoma and graduating from Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering, Ruiz-Martinez interned at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, conducting research in cryogenic materials for reusable launch vehicles. There, she felt at peace with her decision to pursue a career in spaceflight.
“The whole process of research—being mentored by someone so smart—convinced me that that’s what I wanted to do,” Ruiz-Martinez said. “It was like a confirmation.”
As an astronaut instructor years later, seeing the space shuttle majestically take off and finally understanding the launch system and how it worked, “it was like a closure,” Ruiz-Martinez said. “I could finally answer my own questions.”
Now, Ruiz-Martinez answers other kids’
questions through her outreach work with Johnson Space Center’s Hispanic Employee Resource Group and additional educational opportunities.
“When I give talks to kids, to the Hispanic community, I always tell them it is predicted by 2050 that we will become the majority,” Ruiz-Martinez said. “I ask them, ‘Do you want to get to 2050 in numbers
, or in talent
?’ Let’s change the numbers by increasing attendance of college Hispanic students and graduation rates.”
Ruiz-Martinez finds joy in being a “Houston GC” in the Mission Control Center.
“Being in mission control, there’s a big pride in what we do, because we’re contributing to space operations by keeping the space station connected to the ground through satellite and ground communications,” Ruiz-Martinez said. “I would call us enablers of space on the ground and housekeepers of mission control, making things happen behind the scenes and guarding the safety of the crew.”
But just as special to her is her Hispanic heritage and culture, which she hopes to see more of in technical fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“We are a colorful and warm culture,” Ruiz-Martinez said with a smile. “There’s a closeness, a camaraderie we bring. Here (in America), everyone’s into their own thing. We could bring that sense of camaraderie into different fields if we keep growing in talent.”
It’s a numbers game, for sure; thankfully, Ruiz-Martinez isn’t intimidated by them, and she’s working to make sure future explorers don’t fear the language of mathematics, either.
Catherine Ragin Williams
NASA Johnson Space Center
Dorothy Ruiz-Martinez, a ground controller in mission control, gives back to the Hispanic community through her volunteerism. Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz