Latina engineer for NASA Ames inspires minorities to reach for the stars

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The moon is over 238,000 miles away, but when Ali Guarneros Luna was seven years old it seemed even farther.

"My mother used to buy books and encyclopedias," said Guarneros Luna. "They probably don't exist anymore, but I used to come home after school and read them. They had a picture of the space shuttle, and I was so intrigued by it that I wanted to learn about the space shuttle. I later learned who designs them - aerospace engineers."

Guarneros Luna works as an engineer at NASA Ames in Mountain View. She focuses on developing small satellite technology for missions to the moon and Mars.

Getting there wasn't easy. At 14 years old, Guarneros Luna migrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her family. At times she felt like a satellite orbiting earth viewing from afar. She felt like everyone else succeeded but her. She had to grow up fast.

"When I was in high school and turned 18, my mom told me, 'you need to help me,'" Guarneros Luna said. "Within three months of working and going to school, my mother got laid off from her job. So I became the sole supporter of the family. It was really hard."

Years later, motherhood changed her. Guarneros Luna was a single mom of four kids, two with special needs, when she made an unexpected life decision.

She said, "I made a plan. I saved some money for the first year, and then I went back to college. I was working full time, two jobs, with my kids and going to school."

A professor at San Jose State University told her that her NASA dream was obtainable. She didn't believe it at first.

"I was too old, I was not as young as any of the students, and I definitely was not in that mold of students," said Guarneros Luna. "I had four children. I didn't think of myself as someone who was going to contribute something special."

Still, her professor encouraged her to apply. At NASA, she found mentors.

It's been ten years since Guarneros Luna accomplished her NASA dream. Now she is paving the way for more Latinos.

"Create opportunities, internships for minorities and to be contagious about who I'm giving that internship," she explained. "It has to be a minority."

Every summer, Guarneros Luna gives back to her community. She goes back to San Jose State as a professor.

"It's important for them to hear from somebody who did not come from a privileged background and did not come from parents that were educated," she said. "In my mind, I have that 'semillita' of education, that I wanted to get educated. A seed planted in me to go and get an education early on."

The next time you look up and think your dreams like the moon are too far to reach, Guarneros Luna wants you to remember: 238,000 miles is actually closer than you think.

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