Trailblazer of the Week

Wil Santiago

26 February 2021

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Wil Santiago was that kid with NASA labels on all of his notebooks. It was difficult picturing a career in aerospace living in the small town of Guaynabo, but one sunny day at the beach set him on a path. During their family outing, Santiago was sitting on his father’s shoulders when he looked up and watched an airplane take off.

“At that moment, I became fascinated with anything that could fly,” says Santiago, who now works as the Spacecraft System Design Lead at Lockheed Martin Space (LM) for the Lunar Trailblazer mission.

As Design Lead, Santiago is responsible for the overall technical design of the spacecraft and ensuring that all the systems and subsystems work together to achieve the mission. The day-to-day agenda varies, but a big part of his job is communicating with everyone across multiple organizations that support the project.

“It’s critically important to make sure our team is moving forward and ensuring we achieve our goals with these faster paced missions,” says Santiago. “One of the most fulfilling aspects of my role is the continuous learning and helping to bring the team together to solve some unique technical challenges within our cost and schedule constraints.”

For Santiago, Lunar Trailblazer presents a new set of technical challenges for his role because this mission is attempting to deliver high quality science in a small package. He thinks the most exciting part is being able to achieve these objectives with a small spacecraft that could help pave the way for many more deep space missions at a reduced cost.

“We all have to place a stronger focus on managing risks that could drive cost and schedule,” Santiago says. “But being able to collaborate with so many institutions across the US and internationally, including our remarkable science team, is a huge motivation for me.”

Most of Santiago’s family still lives in Puerto Rico. Before he attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, he was encouraged while growing up to pursue math and engineering. His parents strived to provide him with a private education.

“Through a lot of work and sacrifice from my parents, I was able to go to a small private school from Pre-K through high school called Adianez, where I was strongly encouraged by my science and math teachers,” he recalls. “My parents also encouraged me to focus on education, and would even buy me toy aircrafts and spacecraft that I remember playing with a lot of the time in our yard.”

His parents weren’t the only strong influence. Santiago’s brother was actually the first person in his family to really pursue a degree in STEM.

“He was a big and early influence on pursuing my own career in STEM,” says Santiago.

Once he began earning his aerospace engineering degree, Santiago became involved in a few academic organizations, including honor societies and various international students’ and engineering clubs. Being in Florida, he also enjoyed driving down to Cape Canaveral to watch the many rocket launches. After graduating, he left Florida for Houston to work for LM on the Orion spacecraft.

“[Then] back in 2013, I started working within LM’s Deep Space Exploration team as a mission operations thermal engineer, supporting missions including Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Spitzer, and Juno,” recalls Santiago. “I also got the opportunity to briefly support MAVEN, Insight, and OSIRIS-REx through various flight events or tests.”

Working operations gave Santiago the opportunity to truly learn more about these complex systems and develop a strong interest in the development of these spacecraft. He eventually moved into the development phase of the Lucy spacecraft, helping the thermal team and being responsible for hardware development. When he expressed interest to one of his mentors about working on a systems role for a future mission, to his surprise the opportunity to help on Lunar Trailblazer came up.

“I was immediately captivated by the mission objectives and the opportunity of working with our partners across the various institutions that make this project possible,” he says.

To Santiago, being part of the Lunar Trailblazer mission is simply surreal.

“This mission is a major stepping stone in enabling not only a new way of doing space missions, but also enabling human exploration by mapping water resources on the Moon,” he says. “Outside of the mission objectives, it would be cool to obtain data that could change our understanding of the early evolution of the Moon.”

It’s also exciting to be participating on a NASA mission as an underrepresented minority in STEM.

“In some ways I’m part of the underrepresented Hispanic community in STEM,” says Santiago. “During my childhood, STEM wasn't really a big focus from a perspective of possible careers. These days, there are so many programs and resources that encourage STEM. Take advantage to get exposed as early as possible through science fairs, talks, conferences, internships, or simply reaching out to professionals in the industry. There isn’t always a set path in this journey.”

His biggest advice to students that may feel discouraged is to avoid thinking that you have to be the absolute best at math and science to find a career in STEM.

“As an engineer or scientist, you have to get comfortable with the idea that you will always be learning something new and that you'll have to rely on others’ knowledge,” he says.

Santiago also believes it’s important for students to know you don't even have to be an engineer or a scientist to support a mission, and that some of those other roles are just as critical to a mission’s success, including professionals in areas such as business, finance, planning, and communications.

When Santiago gets a chance to escape work, he loves exploring Colorado.

“I’m an amateur photographer of landscapes and wildlife so I enjoy going to our parks and on hikes to scenic places,” he says. “I’ve put a bit more focus into my photography by maintaining a website, Instagram account (@fotanium), and recently obtained a trademark, which was definitely an interesting process. The most scenic place I have visited is Iceland, which really is a photographer’s paradise, and can’t wait to go back one day.”

So, whether he’s traversing Earth or helping to facilitate missions to deep space, exploration is clearly one of Santiago’s main passions.

“This incredible privilege to help guide the technical development of the spacecraft is an evolution in my career which I find extremely fulfilling and I'm most grateful for,” he says. “I get to work with an incredibly talented team that have outstanding experience and technical expertise in deep space missions. A new way of exploring our universe is happening today!”

Wil Santiago is the Spacecraft System Design Lead at Lockheed Martin Space and our Trailblazer of the Week!

By Emily Felder
Emily Felder is a Pasadena City College student and Caltech intern working on science communication for the Lunar Trailblazer mission.