Rick Ybarra, a mechanical engineering student at The University of Texas-Pan American, said his interest in working for NASA started in his early childhood when he asked his mom if he could watch a space shuttle launch to the International Space Station on CNN.
"That sparked my interest. I still remember sitting down in the middle of the living room and watching TV and just seeing the space shuttle go up in the air. That is something that really blew my mind away. Just to go to outer space for me was the first time in my life where I said I want to do that, that is where I want to be," he said.
Come Jan. 18, 2010 Ybarra's dream of working for NASA will come true as he begins his career as an aerospace engineer working on space suits and crew survival systems for the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. The Edinburg native, who will graduate during the fall 2009 ceremonies Saturday, Dec. 19, is the first UTPA student to complete the Cooperative Education Program at Johnson Space Center and be offered a full-time position with the Houston space agency.
"I was informed that the last time the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston had a UTPA student for an internship was 27 years ago, back in 1982, and sadly the student did not complete program," said Ricardo Ramirez, Career Services placement specialist. "Rick left such a big impact with his work ethic and strong engineering background by winning the Outstanding Achievement Award, the highest award at NASA for co-op students, that he was offered a full-time job after graduating in December 2009."
Ybarra said he obtained the co-op opportunity after attending the HESTEC 2007 Career Expo. The co-op program offers graduate and undergraduate students paid and full-time positions related to their field of study. As a co-op student, Ybarra alternated semesters at UTPA with semesters at JSC for three co-op tours totaling 11 months.
"It was kind of an exciting scary feeling because I finished the semester, I did my finals and a week later I was driving up to Houston. It was a happy moment because I knew what I wanted to do, but at the same time it was my first time moving out of the Valley and I was going to be totally independent and most of all I was going to work for NASA," Ybarra said.
On his third co-op tour, this past summer, Ybarra said he immersed himself in learning more about the space suits, and remembers as a child wondering how the astronauts functioned in space wearing the gear.
"Just like I loved seeing the shuttle launched into the air I was also very curious about what it took to actually work with those space suits. I remember seeing the big white suits and the astronauts inside them fixing the International Space Station and thinking to myself 'I want to be in those space suits,'" he said.
Ybarra said during the summer he was assigned a space suit to work on and was taught about the design and engineering of the space suit, which he was able to make modifications to.
"It does not get more realistic than that when the space suit is right in front of you. So it was pretty neat and that is what I did for a month," he said.
Ybarra said he is looking forward to working on the components for the next generation space suits for the lunar surface as well as the interior design of a new space vehicle called Ares I, which will replace the current shuttles.
During his high school years, Ybarra said he took advanced level courses in math and science and basically built a curriculum that would lead him to a career as an engineer with NASA.
"I said 'this is it' and I knew I needed an engineering background to work either with NASA or somewhere in the space industry so I went ahead and geared my curriculum to be a little harder and learn the basics and the foundation I needed to get a good education," he said.
In addition, Ybarra was admitted into the NASA High School Aerospace Scholar Program, a one-week internship with NASA where he learned from and met with experts in space exploration as well as completed an online curriculum on everything from propulsions systems to the future of NASA.
Ybarra is the son of Ruben and Lillian Ybarra of Edinburg. His brother Ruben Thomas Ybarra is a 2003 UTPA mechanical engineering graduate, who currently works as a thermal analyst engineer for MEI Technologies, a subcontracting company of NASA.
As for his advice for up and coming UTPA engineering students who may one day dream of working for NASA, he strongly recommends applying for internship or co-op opportunities during their sophomore and junior years.
"Right now companies are not really hiring or if they do it is very few people so you have to find a way to distinguish yourself from the others," he said. "They really want to see that experience so don't stop with just one internship, get two or three internships if you can."
The 24-year-old said he will never stop dreaming of the opportunity to one day travel to space. The ambition to become an astronaut still remains high on his list of things to do in life.
"My next goal for my career is to become an astronaut. That would just put the icing on the cake," Ybarra said. "I just want to take care of business and represent UTPA."