A NASA Navajo engineer talks space robotics on Mars in an exclusive clip from PBS provided to Space.com.
NASA mechanical engineer Aaron Yazzie, a Diné or Navajo, will feature in PBS's acclaimed series "Native America," which returns for Season 2 on Oct. 24 with four new hour-long episodes that offer a pioneering portrait of contemporary Native America. November, during the series run, is also Native American Heritage Month.
Yazzie is Ashįįhí (Salt Clan) and born for Todích'íi'nii (Bitter Water Clan). He heralds from Tuba City, a community bordering the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona. As an accomplished mechanical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, he designs mechanical systems for NASA's robotic space research missions on Mars, with a focus on planetary sample acquisition and handling.
Watch our exclusive clip for "Native America" Season 2, Episode 1 titled "New Worlds" above, which takes viewers to the sacred birthplace of Navajo weaving.
Here's the show's official synopsis:
"Building on the first season's success, Season 2 of the Native-directed series reveals the beauty and power of today's Indigenous communities. Smashing stereotypes, it follows the brilliant engineers, bold politicians and cutting-edge artists who draw upon Native tradition to build a better 21st century. The series is narrated by Joy Harjo of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the internationally renowned poet, performer and writer who served three terms as the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States.
"Each hour explores a core tenet of Native American heritage: the power of Indigenous design, how language and artistry fuel the soul, the diverse ways Native women lead, and the resilience of the warrior spirit. Brought to life with dynamic stories of the here and now, the series launches an active dialogue between past and present, revealing how foundational beliefs and traditions are shaping and transforming modern Native life."
Yazzie acted as a surface operations downlink chair for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover after it touched down at Gale Crater on Mars in 2012. While that mission is still ongoing, he also delivered flight hardware to Mars on board the InSight lander mission in 2018. His latest set of flight hardware is aboard the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover that is also still active on the Red Planet in Jezero Crater. Yazzie was the lead engineer for the rover's vital drill bits that it will employ to hunt for ancient microbial life on Mars.
Space.com: What was the experience like being featured in this PBS series and representing Native American accomplishments?
Aaron Yazzie: Filming for this series was thrilling! The production crew did an amazing job capturing all the different sides of my life, whether I'm working on the next NASA robotic mission to Mars, doing outreach events to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students, or back home on the Navajo Nation visiting family and being re-energized by the land. I'm proud to help blaze a trail to NASA for my community, and I work to make the excitement of space exploration inclusive to Native Peoples.
Space.com: What keeps you inspired as a NASA engineer and what project are you working on next?
Yazzie: I am inspired by the challenges of space exploration. The goals we are trying to accomplish are not easy. They require innovation and creativity, and it feels incredible when we are able to pull it off. I get to work with brilliant people, and my job never gets boring. I am currently a systems engineer for the Mars Sample Return program, responsible for the mechanical integrity of the sample tubes we are bringing from Mars to Earth.
"Native America" Season 2 plays weekly from Oct. 24 to Nov. 14 on PBS and PBS.org.