NASA’s Navajo engineer, Aaron Yazzie, recently shared his experiences and insights on space robotics on Mars in an exclusive clip provided by PBS to Space.com. Yazzie, who is a Diné or Navajo, is set to feature in the second season of PBS’s acclaimed series “Native America.” The series, which returns on October 24 with four new hour-long episodes, provides a groundbreaking depiction of contemporary Native America.
November, which coincides with the series run, is also recognized as Native American Heritage Month. Yazzie is a member of the Ashįįhí (Salt Clan) and was born into the Todích’íi’nii (Bitter Water Clan). He originates from Tuba City, a community that sits adjacent to the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona.
As a distinguished mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Yazzie is deeply involved in the creation of mechanical systems for NASA’s robotic space research missions on Mars. His work primarily revolves around planetary sample acquisition and handling. This role allows him to utilize his expertise in electronics, computers, programming languages, and coding to contribute to these groundbreaking missions.
The second season of “Native America” builds on the success of its first season by showcasing the strength and beauty of modern Indigenous communities. It breaks down stereotypes by highlighting the achievements of ingenious engineers, daring politicians, and innovative artists who draw from Native traditions to shape a better 21st century. The series is narrated by Joy Harjo of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, an internationally recognized poet, performer, and writer who served three terms as the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States.
Each episode of the series delves into a fundamental aspect of Native American heritage: the influence of Indigenous design, the role of language and artistry in nourishing the soul, the diverse ways in which Native women lead, and the resilience of the warrior spirit. The series bridges the past and present, demonstrating how foundational beliefs and traditions are influencing and transforming modern Native life.
Yazzie’s contributions to space exploration are significant. He served as a surface operations downlink chair for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover after it landed at Gale Crater on Mars in 2012. He also contributed flight hardware to Mars on the InSight lander mission in 2018. His latest hardware is currently aboard the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, which is still active on the Red Planet in Jezero Crater. Yazzie was the chief engineer for the rover’s essential drill bits, which will be used to search for ancient microbial life on Mars.
When asked about his experience being featured in the PBS series and representing Native American accomplishments, Yazzie expressed that filming for the series was exhilarating. He praised the production crew for capturing various aspects of his life, whether he was working on NASA’s next robotic mission to Mars, participating in STEM outreach events, or visiting family back home on the Navajo Nation.
Yazzie mentioned that he is inspired by the challenges of space exploration. The goals they aim to achieve are not easy and require innovation and creativity. Working with brilliant individuals and contributing to the success of these missions is what keeps him motivated. Yazzie is currently a systems engineer for the Mars Sample Return program, where he is responsible for ensuring the mechanical integrity of the sample tubes being brought back from Mars to Earth.
“Native America” Season 2 will air weekly from October 24 to November 14 on PBS and PBS.org. This series offers an invaluable opportunity to learn more about Native American heritage and the contributions of Indigenous individuals in various fields, including space exploration and electronics.