SLU Alum Manages NASA’s Successful Mars Mission

On Monday, NASA’s InSight robotic lander made contact with the rocky red ground of Mars’ surface. The event went somewhat viral after a St. Louis-born engineer involved in the landing was filmed celebrating with an NFL-inspired victory handshake. The event had another St. Louis connection in the form of SLU graduate, Fernando Abilleira.

Abilleira served as the deputy mission design and navigation manager for the mission. Working in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Abilleira has supported multiple flight projects and studies, such as the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter, Mars Science Orbiter, Mars Netlanders, Mars Sample Return and preliminary manned mission-to-Mars studies. Originally from Madrid before attending SLU, Abilleria has been working at NASA for 17 years.

According to NASA’s website, the InSight mission is attempting to understand “how a rocky body forms and evolves to become a planet,” as well as determining “the rate of Martian tectonic activity and meteorite impacts.”

The Mars lander, InSight, which stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport,” is currently settled in Elysium Planitia, a region of the planet that is rather flat. There, it will conduct its studies for a planned two-year mission. Abilleira’s involvement in the mission includes the formulation, design and implementation of the lander and its project.

There are multiple faculty members still in SLU’s aerospace program who remember working with Abilleira during his time at the university, including John George, Ph.D., K. Ravindra, Ph.D., and Michael Swartwout, Ph.D. Swartwout, who was on Abilleira’s Master’s thesis committee recalled his “boundless enthusiasm,” stating that Abilleira was always “very excited to learn about space exploration and was [both] eager [and] hopeful about making his own contributions.”

According to Swartwout, Abilleira also had an “amazing attention to detail.” For his Master’s thesis, Abilleira, appropriately, designed a human colonization project for Mars. While most students picked one or two elements to focus on and left the rest largely unexplored, Abilleira did everything. According to Swartwout it was an “astounding amount of work,” including orbits, rocket selection, payload sizing, landing sites, human habitation modules and resource consumption plans such as water and energy.

Abilleira was also known to have tremendous determination in overcoming obstacles. As a foreign national, he faced great difficulty getting into the U.S. space program. This is a result of concern over potential sharing of technological secrets. While NASA doesn’t have any official security clearances and is technically independent of the federal government, space programs still require an element of public privacy. Despite these severe hiring limitations, Abilleira was undaunted, continuing to push until he was able to secure a job at the laboratory. Swartwout calls Abilleira’s optimistic perseverance “admirable.”

“I’m sure we share the same, common inspiration,” said Connor Morris, a current aerospace engineering student at SLU who is currently interning with NASA. “We are pioneers, who else will discover the unknowns of our universe except for us?”

During his time at SLU, Abilleira earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1999 and then a master’s degree in the same field in 2001. He went to work for the laboratory in 2004.To learn more about Fernando Abilleira and the InSight mission, visit