Contributing to the Growth of a Space Program

We had been painting the wall for a while in silence. Then one of the painters asked the question that every MIT student feels some type of way about. “Where do you go to school?” I don’t really like to tell people the first time they ask because sometimes people freak out or tell me a sad story about not getting in and I don’t know what to do about that. I told them anyway.


She smiled.

Que ch*ngón! Eres un ingeniero?   

I told her I was an aerospace engineer and that I was working at la Universidad Panamericana on a CubeSat called Colibri.

Qué es eso?

Figure 1: a stock image of StockSat, the name I have given the pictured CubeSat I found online. It’s a third of the size of the CubeSat I am working on and isn’t quite as cool, but its solar panels and general vibe give you an example of Colibri’s scale and appearance. 

I awkwardly pantomimed the shape while explaining that CubeSats are inexpensive and can carry scientific payloads at low altitude orbits. I mentioned their growing use by universities and countries not named the United States of America.

Porque no estas en la NASA o Boeing?

I realized that for all intents and purposes, to her, I am American. And an American aerospace engineer, for her, worked at NASA or Boeing. Or maybe the military or another big company. But not a university in Mexico. And she’s not really wrong. Aerospace startups haven’t existed until recently, and even commercial aerospace has close ties to government or military funding (28 of SpaceX’s last 72 launches have been paid for by the U.S. government either through NASA or the Air Force. Source). Mexico doesn’t have much of an aerospace industry to speak of.

I explained MISTI to her and how this project was a collaboration with MIT and was supposed to sort of help kickstart the Mexican Space Agency (AEM).

¿Quíen lo va a lanzar? ¿Es un proyecto mexicano?

I hadn’t really thought about it that way. She was asking who was going to launch the CubeSat, and if the project was really Mexican if it was funded, worked on, and launched by Americans.

She was right to ask that. My work was not apolitical. Nothing involving space is. Launching something into space requires government support. Mexico, and many developing countries, don’t have the infrastructure for space missions, which means that their extraterrestrial ventures relied on the magnanimity of richer countries like the U.S.

I hadn’t realized how much of that was happening with this project. Even though a lot of intellectual heavy lifting—from design to testing—was happening in Mexico, the launch still had to happen with the permission of the United States government. Our design review at the end of the summer was with NASA and MIT.

The success of this mission relies on American expertise and American money.

There I was, a physical manifestation of this dynamic. I’m sort of Mexican, here from the U.S. to help make sure students from this country—with far less resources than I had been afforded—succeed in an industry that my own country pioneered for the purpose of war. An industry that had been financially impossible for them until very recently.

I don’t think it’s all bad though, as the project is run by Mexican students and Mexican professors.

Figure 2: Gabe and the black wall you’ve heard so much about.

I think it doesn’t necessarily matter where we come from because our identities are more complex than just nationality. I am more than just American. I am more than an aerospace engineer. I am more than half-Mexican. I am more than an MIT student. I am all of those things simultaneously. Perhaps I can contribute to the Mexican aerospace industry without perpetuating a history of colonialism. Hopefully, I can contribute intellectually without infringing on their intellectual property. I don’t have to be a foreigner. Or maybe being a foreigner doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, if I can contribute something good. At least, I can try.

I said more or less all of this to the painter. She smiled again.

Eso me gusta.

The artist turned back to the wall, pressed the roller to the drywall, and continued painting.

Gabriel Owens-Flores is an aerospace student in the class of 2021. This summer, he is working on a CubeSat at the Panamerican University in Mexico City.