For University of Houston graduate and native Houstonian Javier Lopez Jr., it was repeated visits to the Space Center Houston with his parents and twin sister Cynthia that kindled a lifelong interest in the stars.
“As a little kid, I was fascinated that people were actually traveling to space, and thinking about how when looking up at the night sky, there were people living among the stars, aboard the International Space Station,” he said. “Once I learned more about the Apollo missions and that several astronauts had visited the Moon, my mind was blown and the passion for space exploration began growing inside of me. I decided very early on that being an astronaut would be my dream job.”
Lopez, a first-generation Mexican American graduate, has done his best to make that dream a reality, with hard work in high school – researching what degrees astronauts had and what majors were hired by NASA – followed by two years at Lone Star Community College, before transferring to UH.
“I ended up deciding to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering,” he said. “Since then, I’m proud to say that I have graduated as a Mechanical Engineer and Space Architect from UH. The same passion that started in me as a little kid continued to grow and push me through my academic career, and now it’s time to use what I learned and do big things. I’m still extremely fascinated by space exploration, learning more about where we came from, and finding out what other type of life exists in this universe. The dream of becoming astronaut still exists and I’m hoping that one day I can leave my footprints on the surface of the Moon.”
Lopez graduated with his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the Cullen College of Engineering in Spring 2019. He followed this up by earning a Master’s in Space Architecture in Fall 2020, and now, he works full-time with Lunar Resources, Inc., a space industrial company pioneering space manufacturing and off-Earth resource extraction.
However, Lopez noted that it wasn’t a completely straight path from his dream of working in the aerospace industry to immediate success. He applied for more than 20 internships at NASA while a student. He completed two with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, working on Humans Factors Engineering, before also completing two NASA Pathways internship programs in structural dynamics, design and other disciplines. Lopez has also completed an internship with Lockheed Martin, working on the Orion program.
“My experiences with working at NASA will be something that I will always remember and hold dear to my heart,” he said. “It was nice having the hard work finally pay off and work alongside very talented people on some of the coolest projects.”
Lopez cited the support structure provided by his parents – Javier Sr. and Lourdes – as well as by organizations, friends and faculty at UH, as being vital for his success.
“During my first semesters at UH I worked hard to do well academically and I also became heavily involved with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers [SHPE], which opened my eyes to the many opportunities that were out there and helped me realize my fullest potential,” he said. “Learning about the success my friends and peers were able to obtain, I was motivated and encouraged to do the same.”
For his Mechanical Engineering degree, he identified professors Farah Hammami and Holley Love as significant mentors. At the Cullen College of Engineering’s Sasawaka International Center for Space Architecture, he said director Olga Bannova, as well as professors Larry Bell, Kriss J. Kennedy and Larry Toups, were positive influences. For his NASA internships, he had two prominent mentors – Charles Dischinger and Tanya C. Andrews.
Like many other graduates of the Class of 2020, Lopez also had to navigate a world going through the coronavirus pandemic. He encouraged current students and new graduated to continue working, but to be prepared to pursue alternative plans if needed.
“I was very lucky to have been working part-time with the company I am currently at before receiving my full-time offer, so I didn’t experience those difficulties I know many are facing,” he said. “However, I did have a backup plan, and that was to attend the virtual career fairs hosted by UH, attend SHPE’s Virtual National Convention, and continue applying to companies that I was interested in. This pandemic has changed the way we do many things and I know it has been tough for everyone, but do your best to not be discouraged and keep on applying for your dream company or position. You know exactly what you are capable of and what you would be bringing to the table to your professional endeavors. Continue to work hard and push yourself until you’re where you want to be.”