A Puerto Rican with space citizenship
[ Versión español ]
-"And what good does it do you to own the stars?
(The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
The deeds of Neil Armstrong, Yuri Gagarín and Sally Ride have inspired many to go beyond the stars. This is the case of Puerto Rican Yajaira Sierra-Sastre. As she directs her sight towards the sky, she feels closer to fulfill one of her most desired dreams: to become part of some outer space expedition. To accomplish this, all of her efforts have been directed towards the Universe that until now reveals as a mystery.
That is how this 35-year-old, young scientist, who graduated from the Department of Chemistry in the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez (UPRM) and who holds a Ph.D. in Nanomaterials Chemistry from Cornell University, was chosen to participate in a research project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), named Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). Sierra- Sastre is one of six people with astronaut qualities that have been selected from 700 applicants around the world to take part in a simulated mission to Mars.
"The crew will participate in a study to assess the energy and water requirements needed for cooking, and the effect of types of meals, instantaneous versus prepared, on crewmembers’ mood," she described.
She added that other aspects to be considered will be the acceptability of food, nutritional values and whether the acuity of the senses of smell and taste changes as the mission progresses and under conditions of isolation and overcrowding such as the ones astronauts will face in future missions to the red planet.
As part of her preparation, Yajaira as well as the other six selected, will live for 120 days in a planetary habitat located in a lava desert, close to the volcano of Mauna Loa on the saddle area side of the island of Hawaii. According to reports, this place is very similar to the Martian surface because of its absence of vegetation, its rocky environment and the reddish ground that characterizes the region.
In addition to the study of food, the crew will work in different projects involving robotics research, geology, nanotechnology, biomedical and human factors, among others.
"As the official scientist or mission specialist, I am responsible for coordinating the planning of operations for research and experimentation and to assist in the design, acquisition, and data analysis. My research project will evaluate multifunctional textiles that incorporate different types of nanomaterials that could be used in long-term space missions. Specifically, I will be analyzing the antimicrobial activity and stain and odor resistance properties of textiles to be used inside the habitat," emphasized the alumni of UPRM.
Other aspects that will simulate the life in the Martian base will include strict rules of water rationing, wear simulated spacesuits outside the habitat, cook meals from rehydrated ingredients and no communication in real time - anything from Skype, phone calls, or instant messages - with people on "Earth."
On the other hand, Yajaira's work in nanotechnology, educational outreach and her dream of becoming the first Puerto Rican female astronaut have recently appeared in local television, radio and international media. All that attention not only comes from the interest that awakens the pursuit of this arroyana, but because Sierra Sastre is also incorporating the taste of Puerto Rican recipes as part of the dietary study.
"I never imagined that it would be 'through the kitchen' that I would get 'closer' to space. This experience, however, reaffirms the importance of transferable skills and the ability to adapt to new situations. Cooking is one of my favorite hobbies and I love to venture with all kinds of international dishes," she said.
Precisely, at an early age, Yajaira became interested in science and space exploration. And although, her city did not have a good library, she devoted herself to collect all articles related to NASA space missions that came out in the newspaper. According to the Nanoscientist, it was during her teenage years that she understood that only a small group of men and women - none of them Puerto Rican at that time - had the opportunity to travel into outer space.
"Anyway, I decided to focus my bachelor studies in science and engineering without being fully aware that those were the basic requirements for that career. I remember having shared my enthusiasm and dreams with professors in the Astronomical Observatory of UPRM. By the way, it was during a campus visit of astronaut Leland Melvin (who is also a Chemist) that I became motivated to continue my doctoral studies and keep the illusion alive," she described.
From that moment on her career took off, getting her Bachelor's degree in Chemistry, as well as the Teacher's Certification from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Mayagüez. After finishing her undergraduate studies, Yajaira returned to her hometown Arroyo, and worked as a Chemistry teacher at her former high school. At the end of the academic year, she was awarded with a summer scholarship for teachers at Stanford University. There she discovered her passion for nanotechnology and returned to Puerto Rico to work as a Research Assistant at the Center for Advanced Nanoscale Materials (CANM) at the UPR in Río Piedras. During that time, she investigated nanomaterials with applications in space exploration.
After that experience, Yajaira decided to pursue her graduate studies at Cornell University, where she graduated with a PhD in Nanomaterials Chemistry in 2009. As part of her thesis, Sierra- Sastre worked as a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico. After graduating, she served as a scientific leader in a small company specialized in nanotechnology.
On that matter, she says, "in addition to research, I am committed to educating the public on nanotechnology topics. In March, we published an article entitled La Borinqueña más pequeña. This was a project in collaboration with the Cornell NanoScale Science & Technology Facility (CNF), in which we wrote the letters of our national anthem on the nanometer scale. We employed lithographic techniques that are used in the manufacturing of integrated circuits."
For Yajaira, the risks and sacrifices that entail the astronaut career are minimal compared with the benefits for humanity. In addition, she reiterated that it is very appealing because of the multidisciplinary nature of the scientific work being done in the experimental space station.
"On the personal level, the desire to pursue this goal comes from an adventurous spirit, an inner strength that moves me to conquer new challenges, the opportunity to inspire future generations and a core belief in being able to transform minds and wills through discovery, the acquisition of knowledge and exploration," said the social entrepreneur.
Thus, in January of this year, she submitted her formal application to the NASA Astronaut Candidate Program. She is currently part of the group of 450 candidates with high qualifications that passed the first evaluative round of a total of 6,300 applications. From those, only 120 will be chosen for an interview until the final group is reduced to 15 candidates for the 2013 astronauts' class.
Meanwhile, she continues her physical training and prepares for the Mars simulated mission, which will take place on March 2013. She is also reading books about lessons learned in other simulated missions and exploration in remote locations, on how to work in extreme environments and about food and hygiene in space.
"In practical terms, the astronaut's career is very attractive due to the multidisciplinary nature of the scientific work that is done at the international space station. It is very risky and self-sacrificing, but the benefits for humanity are many. Many of the technological advances led by NASA in the field of space exploration have directly benefited life here on Earth; some examples are long distance telecommunications, home water filters and some types of smoke detectors," she revealed.
Finally, Yajaira recognized the role that UPRM had in her scientific development.
"I appreciate the role of education of several professors at El Colegio with whom I had the opportunity to take courses. The excellence in teaching of Professor Ivelisse Padilla in the General Chemistry class was crucial in my decision to continue higher studies in the discipline. Also, I must recognize the Teachers' Preparation Program of UPRM, in particular to Doctor Ana Lebrón-Tirado. It was in that Program where I discovered my vocation for education. Today I'm a scientist, but also an educator. The public outreach and educational activities are the fuel in my career and which fills with purpose my existence," she said.
After Mars, Yajaira will be open to the possibilities and will evaluate the options presented. If she is selected for the NASA Astronaut Candidate Program, she will have to report to Houston in August 2013. If not, she will consider opportunities for teaching and new research avenues in the areas of materials science in microgravity and nanomaterials for photovoltaics space applications.