NASA’s Marshall Center salutes Hispanic Heritage
enjoys the history of America’s space program from front row seat at
Pedro “Pete” Rodriguez never fully realized he’s had a front-row seat
in the history of the space program until a colleague casually
pointed it out one day.
Since Rodriguez began his NASA career at the Marshall Space Flight
Center in Huntsville, Ala., 25 years ago, he’s worked alongside Dr.
Wernher von Braun’s original rocket team, and has been part of the teams
building the Space Shuttle, Hubble Space Telescope, and X-34 technology
This year he’s taken on another integral role this time in NASA’s No.
1 technology development effort, the Second Generation Reusable Launch
Vehicle program. The program is part of the Space Launch Initiative,
designed to substantially improve safety and reliability while reducing
the cost of space travel.
“Who knew this would happen to me?” says Rodriguez, a first-generation
American born in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I really wanted to be a musician!”
Rodriguez’s parents, both Puerto Rican, met in New York where his father
Pellin’s salsa band was touring, and his mother worked as a secretary
for American Express.
“They also married in New York,” says Rodriguez. “ Then I came along,
the first of three boys. I was born in Brooklyn, Michael in Puerto
Rico and Tommy in Chicago. Because my father was the band’s lead singer,
our family was always on the move, but I loved it. I wanted to be just
like my father singing, traveling and enjoying life.”
But the senior Rodriguez put his foot down. He said no to Pete’s plan
to follow in his footsteps on the salsa circuit, insisting that life
would prove too tough for his eldest son. Respectfully, Pete settled
instead into the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. Searching for
a direction in life, he would change majors four times before earning
his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1975.
“My father – who didn’t finish high school was so proud of me when
I got that degree,” says Rodriguez. “As one of eight children, he began
singing at 16 and just kept going to make a living. I promised him
I was going to go all the way and earn a doctorate.”
But before more education could begin, NASA came calling.
“That same year, several NASA centers recruited students at the Mayagüez
campus,” says Rodriguez. “The interview schedule was so tight, I couldn’t
get in, and neither could three of my close friends.”
The young friends were officers of the American Society of Mechanical
Engineering’s Student Chapter and involved in many extracurricular activities.
Norm Hochberger, a Marshall Center recruiter visiting the University
of Puerto Rico, took notice of their persistent attempts to get interviews
with NASA. Impressed by their aggressiveness, Hochberger offered to
interview them together in his hotel lobby before he left.
“He pulled up a table right there in the middle of the lobby, started
talking with us, and decided to hire us all,” recalls Rodriguez. “We
were all good students, but I’m convinced our involvement with student
activities is what caught his attention. He knew we would fit into
the Marshall community.”
Rodriguez joined the Marshall Center in 1976, working under German
rocket scientists Erich Engler and Gus Kroll, building test equipment
for what would become the struts used to separate the external tank
and solid rocket boosters from the Space Shuttle. Then it was on to
developing structural concepts for the Space Station assembly, and flight
support equipment that’s still used today to carry science instruments
to the Hubble Space Telescope.
One of his most memorable moments, however, came following the accident
of Space Shuttle Challenger, when he was pulled off the Hubble project
to help redesign field joints and o-rings.
“I have never seen that kind of teamwork in my life. It was the best
design job I’ve ever worked on –intense, critical and important to our
nation. We knew we couldn’t fail.”
Rodriguez also had a personal investment.
“I kept thinking, ‘I have to focus on safety’ for Jan Davis, my college
buddy and future astronaut, so I knew I had to do whatever it would
take to get it right.”
Rodriguez and three-time Space Shuttle astronaut Davis attended the
University of Alabama in Huntsville together, where Rodriguez earned
his master’s in mechanical engineering again making his father
While pursuing his master’s, Rodriguez moved to Florida to work on
jet engines for NASA contractor Pratt & Whitney, a United Technologies
company. But the lure of finishing his degree brought him back to Huntsville,
where United Technologies found a place for him at USBI Inc. Until
NASA came calling again.
With his newest degree, Rodriguez returned to Marshall in 1982. Again
he told his father he was going “all the way,” and, began work on his
But the death of Pellin Rodriguez two years later robbed him of the
chance to witness his son “go all the way.” Yet Pete Rodriguez takes
solace in the fact that “my father was always so proud of me. And I’ll
always carry that with me.”
Even so, Pete Rodriguez put his doctoral work on hold. Coincidentally,
Dr. Robert Hackett, faculty advisor to both Rodriguez and Jan Davis
at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, moved to the University
of Mississippi in Oxford. It was the incentive Rodriguez needed to
keep going, so he enrolled in classes part-time in Oxford, and Hackett
became Rodriguez’ advisor there.
It took 15 years until 1997 for a very determined Rodriguez
to finish his education. “I took it one class at a time. But I hung
in there, knowing my children Marilyn and Pedro Jr. would be proud that
I achieved my educational goal.”
Even school couldn’t keep Rodriguez from his front-row seat at NASA.
In 2000, he was named lead systems engineer for NASA’s X-34 technology
demonstrator at the Marshall Center. The technology lessons learned
in that program were merged into the new Second Generation Reusable
Launch Vehicle Program. And Rodriguez merged to the new program too,
to become manager of NASA’s contract with Northrop Grumman.
“I work with Northrop Grumman to help develop systems for what will
become our second generation reusable spacecraft,” says Rodriguez.
“We’re investigating the need for new technologies for airframes and
vehicle health management. We’re also performing studies to identify
critical gaps that might exist in crew escape systems, to improve them
in whatever spacecraft is to follow the Space Shuttle.”
Safety is always foremost in Rodriguez’ mind. Again, he mentions his
friend Jan Davis – now director of the Flight Projects Directorate at
Marshall. Astronauts who have, and will, follow Davis into space, says
Rodriguez, deserve every ounce of his energy to “get it right.”
In his downtime, though, music still has its hold on Rodriguez. “I
sing in the choir at my church, and lead the singing during mass when
there’s no choir. You know, I’ve enjoyed music my whole life.”
Pete Rodriguez is right back where he started, still yearning to be
a musician. Yet very happy his father put his foot down those many years
ago, and said “No.”