From sci-fi films to NASA: Fil-Am engineer recounts life hurdles, goals after role in Mars mission

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 26)— Like many other kids, Gregorio Villar III grew up watching a bunch of science fiction films.

The blockbuster hits "Star Trek," "Star Wars," and one of his favorites, the Will Smith-starrer "Independence Day," sparked his interest to someday work in space.

“When he [Smith] goes into space and just sees the blanket of stars, he says that he’s been waiting for this all his life,” Villar said in an interview with CNN Philippines’ The Source, recalling a scene from the 1996 movie.

“So growing up all these movies really inspired me to work in space. I was really good at math and I loved science, so that’s what I kind of pursued throughout my career,” he added.

Fast forward to today, Villar went on to fulfill his dream, landing a job at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration where he serves as an operations systems engineer for the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

He was also one of the Filipino-Americans who played a key role in the Mars 2020 mission, which recently saw the successful landing of the Perseverance rover on the red planet, as the head verification and validation engineer for the entry, descent, and landing phase of the project.

READ: How Filipino-American engineer helped in Perseverance rover's safe Mars landing

Journey to NASA

It wasn’t always a smooth ride for Villar, however, as he recounted his fair share of challenges to achieve his goals.

Villar grew up in the US, but moved back to the Philippines when he was around 13 years old. He completed his secondary education at the Saint Louis University-Laboratory High School in Baguio City where he, admittedly, had to adjust being a new student.

“It was quite an adjustment for me growing up mostly in the US. It was hard to adjust just being the new person, being the new kid,” he said.

Villar then continued his education at the California State Polytechnic University Pomona, where he earned a bachelor's degree in physics.

“It was challenging because in college, even though I thought I was good in math, I did get an 'F' in one of my classes,” the engineer said. “But you know I persevered out of that and retook the class and just kept going.”

He also recalled applying for a physics program for graduate school, but did not get the results he was hoping for at the time.

“And maybe that meant it just wasn’t for me right? Maybe physics wasn’t for me and that led me to engineering,” he said.

“And I did well in engineering, got my masters in astronautical engineering, and ended up working at NASA.”

What’s next?

The safe and “flawless” landing of the Perseverance rover last week on Mars hogged headlines all over the world, with experts and scientists lauding the pivotal moment for NASA and the space exploration globally.

LOOK: New Mars image from rover landing site shows the red planet in high definition

For Villar, the work continues even after the stellar accomplishment.

“It’s been a long eight years on Perseverance but after that, there’s a lot of missions that we still have to do,” Villar said. “Perseverance right now is gonna collect some samples, and we are studying on the next mission that will bring the samples back so maybe I’ll work on that.”

Villar likewise bared he has applied for the agency’s astronaut program.

“But I haven’t heard back yet and hopefully one day I’ll be back about astronaut training, we’ll see. But I’m just mostly focusing on resting now that we’ve done this amazing thing.”