Andy Gonzales ’75 is living his childhood dream. As boy, he was a Star Trek fan who passionately followed the early NASA Mercury project and wished he could be part of such an exciting effort. Thirty-five years later, he is doing just that. Now a NASA/Ames project manager, Gonzales and his team have developed the Kitty Hawk 3 Mars plane-a prototype of a glider-like craft that may one day fly across the surface of Mars to gather scientific data.
Gonzales’ team had its stellar moment on Aug. 9, 2001, when they used a helium balloon to lift a prototype plane to 103,000 feet (believed to be the highest ever for a glider). The plane was then dropped and after an initial 13,000-foot plunge, the glider swooped out of its steep dive into stable flight at nearly the speed of sound. It flew for more than two hours before making a safe landing on a grass field at Oregon’s Tillamook Airport. As flight director, Gonzales told the media:”It turned out to be a better airplane than we dared hope for. The experiment proved we could fly over Mars.”
But how did this SCU graduate end up working on such a groundbreaking project?
Family, flexibility, and following dreams have all played a role in Gonzales’ life and career path. After graduating from Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, Gonzales chose Santa Clara based on its stellar reputation and location, which was close to his family.
While maintaining a strong interest in the space program, Gonzales, influenced by his grandfather (who was in construction) enrolled as a civil engineering major. He says that it was at SCU where he learned to see the big picture and not get pigeonholed into one specialty. He realized that flexibility and open-mindedness would serve him well in his career and life.”The Santa Clara experience was good for me,” says Gonzales. “I wasn’t just going to focus narrowly on one thing, I was going to keep my eyes on a lot of different things.” This flexibility enabled Gonzales to have a multidimensional career leading to his work in the space program. He worked on several civil engineering projects before joining NASA/Ames in 1984. It is here that he has worked on diverse projects such as retrofitting the wind tunnel and researching advanced life support. This led to space station work and now the Mars project.
“Back when I was kid, I wanted to be a test director; I did it-so in a way it really was a dream come true,” says Gonzales, who lives in Sunnyvale with his wife, Dawn, a pediatric intensive care nurse at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, and his son, Greg. Gonzales says a license plate frame inscription that he has seen in the NASA parking lot aptly describes his career:”I don’t read science fiction, I live it!”