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Behind the ScenesMeet the People

Rick Rodriguez and Tessa Lucas,
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

Couple shares cultural heritage, works together on NASA space programs

IMAGE: Rodriguez and Lucas
Rick 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.

Three years 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.

“I remember 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.”

Rodriguez kept 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.

Lucas studied 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.)

“The whole 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 trips.”

Rodriguez and 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.

“The Spanish 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.”

Rodriguez and 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.

“I loved 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.”

Instead of 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.

“I loved 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.

Lucas, who 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 in Huntsville.

Meanwhile, 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.

“Coming 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 crew.

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 systems.

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.

“As a 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.”

This year, 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.

All text and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight Center.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 06/23/2003
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