As many of us switched between marvelling at the fireworks lighting up the sky and mentally preparing for real life after a three-day weekend, a group of brilliant NASA scientists gathered at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena to see the culmination of a five-year project. On Monday night, as Juno – a spacecraft roughly the size of a basketball court equipped with three Lego crew members – headed to Jupiter, the group waited to find out whether or not it could be pulled into Jupiter’s orbit. According to CNN, since the scientists succeeded, solar-powered Juno will spend the next 20 months circling Jupiter and giving us more information about the gas giant, and in turn, hopefully more insight about our universe. This mission marks the second time a probe has orbited Jupiter, and it will result in never-before-seen views of the planet. According to NASA’s Tumblr, “The Juno spacecraft will, for the first time, see below Jupiter’s dense clover of clouds. [Bonus fact: This is why the mission was named after the Roman goddess, who was Jupiter’s wife, and who could also see through the clouds.]”
Colombian-born Adriana Ocampo played an instrumental part in reaching this milestone. For Ocampo, Juno is a continuation of her work with Galileo, an unmanned spacecraft that studied Jupiter between 1995 and 2003. As the science project manager at NASA, she’s worked on Juno for more than 10 years, according to Univision, but really, this mission fulfills her childhood dreams. As a young girl, she used to sit on the roof of her house looking at the stars for hours, wondering what existed beyond what her eye could see. Growing up in Argentina, Ocampo found herself “more interested in a chemistry set than in dolls,” and she spent time building spaceships out of what she found in her kitchen. The dolls she did have became astronauts, notes David E. Newton in his book, Latinos in Science, Math, and Professions. By age 8, she knew she’d pursue a career in STEM, even though in middle school, counselors tried to persuade her to go into business or accounting.
By 1970, her family moved to Pasadena, and as a junior in high school, she got a summer job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She first attended Pasadena City College before transferring to the University of California at Los Angeles, and she’s worked at NASA since 1973. 2016 seems to be a particularly good year for her, as she was named named this year’s National Hispanic Scientist of the Year, but the truth is, she’s always been badass. In 1989, she studied satellite images of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, and she discovered Chicxulub, the crater believed to have caused the extinction of dinosaurs.
At a time when Latinas are less likely than other women to go into science, technology, mathematics, and engineering careers, Ocampo’s trailblazing ways serve as inspiration. “I was raised to believe you could do anything you wanted with effort, time, and persistence,” she said, according to Geek Squad. “It didn’t matter if you were a girl. It is the dream of every child to play in the dirt. We geologists get to do it for real. We don’t explore places; we explore time, way back in the past. It’s written in the rocks.”
Even though the possibility that Juno couldn’t orbit Jupiter always existed, Ocampo had hope. Her time working at NASA – where she’s already accomplished things beyond her wildest dreams – has made her optimistic.