Here is the full transcript of Costa Rican electrical engineer Sandra Cauffman’s TEDx Talk on NASA – Reach, Strive, Achieve at TEDx PuraVidaJoven conference.
Sandra Cauffman – Costa Rican electrical engineer
Every time I work on a rocket launch I get chills. During the count down, I hold my breath. The countdown is so terrifying because the satellite that I have worked on is going into space on top of a bomb. This rocket can be delivered safely into orbit, or it can blow up in an instant. The climax for me, and for everyone working on this amazing project is the point of liftoff and separation. I know many of you have watched rockets launch from NASA on television. The sound is so overwhelming.
When the sound waves travel across the three and a half miles from the launch pad to those watching the launch, we not only hear the liftoff, we actually feel it. It is so amazing. We are completely engulfed in that noise and the sound, it’s just incredible. It is thrilling to realize that this rocket, with a satellite. I have helped build, is heading at 17,600 miles per hour into space. And guess what, I just finished launching a satellite to Mars.
It is just incredible that a little piece of me and a little piece of Costa Rica has travelled to Mars and is now orbiting the Red Planet. We need to understand the processes that contributed to Mars becoming the dry and arid planet that it is today. And we want to understand all the issues that we have with climate change, if any of those processes are occurring here on Earth. We really want to understand what happened, so we can prevent all of that from happening on Earth later on. I am also so amazed at how far I have traveled to get where I am today.
I marvel at my own journey, and how I came to help probe the mysteries of outer space. Michelangelo once said, “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we actually reach it.” My story today is how a Costa Rican girl from a poor family nurtured an improbable dream about space travel and made that dream come true.
My story began a long time ago. My first years were very full of mistreatment and pain. My mother was forced to take two jobs, sometimes three, just to make ends meet. My mother worked most of the time. Sometimes she would come home in between jobs just to sleep a few hours and then have to turn around and go back to work. We knew she was dead tired, but she still took some time to be with us and play with us and talk to us. For many years, my mother kept food on our table and a roof over our heads.
I was always in awe of her perseverance and determination to keep on going without complaining. She would not let herself break under all the pressure that she was under. I continued to take care of the house chores and my younger brother while going to school hardships, and everything I had to do. During my elementary school years, I had a very compassionate teacher.
Her name is Leda Espinosa de Valverde. We called her la Niña Leda. She was a loving person and demanded a lot of her students. She taught us to take pride in everything that we did and to pay attention to all of the details. Our “libros de vida” had to be cleaned, organized, and the letters had to be perfect.
Everything had to be just right. Through la Niña Leda, I learned to take pride in everything I did and to try to do it correctly the first time. Sometimes what I was doing seemed almost impossible. It would have been easy to just listen to my own thoughts, just to give up, why did I have to study so much, or how tired I was and go to sleep and not even bother. But, I would not let my thinking become my obstacle.
I told myself that I had to do better, that I had to take time to study, that I had to do my homework, even if I didn’t get much sleep. It was important to me to get good grades. I knew I didn’t want the kind of life that I saw wearing my mother down. I dreamed of escaping the poverty and pain. I wanted to do something different when I grew up.
The dream that began taking shape in me became my escape from the only world that I knew. Sometimes we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing during a significant historical event. Well, July 20th, 1969 was one such event for me. I was seven years old. I wanted to watch the first human walk on the Moon.
We did not have a television at home, so we went to a neighbor’s house. All of the kids were clustered around a small black and white television. There were many people in the room, some were lying on the floor, while others were standing behind the sofa. We watched in total silence. We could hear a pin drop in that room.
We were in awe when we saw an American named Neil Armstrong place his foot on the surface of the Moon for the first time. The TV crackled out his words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. This really was a giant leap. I walked home that night and looked at the Moon so far away, and I knew then that I wanted to be part of that adventure. I would be lying if I said that I knew what NASA was at that moment.
However, I knew that I wanted to work in space. I wanted to be able to go to the Moon someday. So I remember saying to my mother, “I want to do that someday, Mom.” And Mom could have said so many things that would have deterred me at that point. But what she said set in motion my determination to become who I am today.
She said, “Sandra, you never know. Just work hard for what you want. The world goes around and around, and you never know what opportunities might present themselves, and you have to be ready to get them.” The world did go round and round and our problems continued. During this time I realized that I had to take ownership of my actions.
My success was up to me. It was not my mother’s or my teacher’s responsibility to make me succeed. It was my responsibility. I saw how hard my mother worked just to survive, and I tried to learn by her experiences. That became my goal, “not to repeat history,” and of course “to go to the Moon”.
When I was 12 years old, we lost our house and we started moving from place to place. Mom would rent a room here and there, but we had to move frequently. I was determined to graduate from high school and to go to college. I tried to always find people who would elevate me and not to get with the wrong crowds. It allowed me to take all these baby steps that I need toward my very lofty goal to go to the Moon some day.
I wanted to do things differently, I was always remembering in the back of my head what my mother used to tell me – “Do not repeat history”. So I wanted to do things very very differently. I talked to my teachers and other people who would give me good advice and ideas. I tried to recognize all the bad ideas and separate myself from all of those people who always tried to give you bad advice. I continued to nurture the dream of space travel in my mind and in my heart.
And it was still pulling me forward. One of my intermediate goals was to become an electrical engineer. When I was accepted at the University of Costa Rica, the counselor said that I could not study electrical engineering because I was a woman. He recommended that I study industrial engineering instead, because that was the ladylike engineering. I spent three and half years studying industrial engineering at the University of Costa Rica.
Well, I definitely admit that in that point in my life, I underestimated my own abilities. I knew that I was capable, but I didn’t feel like I was assertive enough. It did not cross my mind to assert myself and insist that I really wanted to study electrical engineering rather than industrial. I decided to change majors. I figured at that point it wouldn’t hurt.
I finally decided to study what I always wanted to study which was electrical engineering. I became a transfer student, and out of the major credits that I had at the University of Costa Rica, only 31 were recognized, so I had to start pretty much all over again. There were many many challenges in front of me; still I spoke almost no English, I only had the English that I knew from high school.
So it was very hard for me. It took me three and a half more years to get my degrees. At that point, I was on the seven year plan to graduation. I finally graduated with a double major in electrical engineering and physics. After graduation, I went to a job fair, which led to an interview.
I never forget being offered the job on the spot. I had overcome so many obstacles and now there was a wonderful opportunity to work at Goddard as a contractor. Three years later, I was hired by the agency. I finally became a full-fledged civil servant and the reason this happened was because during my three years as a contractor, I worked on many optical systems working with scientists hand-by-hand and I was noticed.
And when I put in that resume, they gave me the job, and I was so so happy that finally after all the years and all of the challenges, I finally became a NASA employee. I have been working for NASA now for 23 and a half years as a full-fledged civil servant. Working at NASA has enabled me to design and test hardware, work side by side with talented scientists, and design new missions for space exploration. I work with so many amazing people who think of things nobody had ever done before, and they inspire me so much every day. Our work isn’t easy; it’s very very hard.
And I really love it. My dream, as you have heard, was very very lofty and perhaps a bit unrealistic. My path was very difficult, and at any moment I could have given up. But I made a conscious choice to move towards a different life for myself. I made deliberate decisions that put me in unfamiliar situations.
Many of the experiences I sought out were not only new, but they were very very scary. I didn’t know if I would achieve my goal, but I didn’t allow myself to be overcome by doubts or negative thinking. I was very determined to change my behavior so I didn’t have to repeat the past and repeat history. So continue to bring new thoughts, ideas, and perceptions into your life, and get to know different people with different perspectives, different occupations, cultures, religions. The bottom line is, that with perseverance and staying true to my dream in life, I was able to achieve what many people thought I shouldn’t have even considered.
Life is never easy. But the circumstances of your birth should not take the kind of person that you can become. You have control of your destiny. So, set lofty goals with intermediate goals along the way. While you many never achieve your lofty goal, in an effort to reach it, you will always go very very far. If you reach far enough you may yet accomplish your dreams. When I was seven years old, I wanted to go to the Moon. Look where I am today. I have landed among the stars.