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Navajo engineer from Holbrook inspires as his NASA career reaches great heights

Aaron Yazzie is navigating Mars missions like Curiosity, Insight and the most recent, Perseverance, which landed on the red planet back in February.

HOLBROOK, Ariz. — From an Arizona small town, all of the way to Mars, a Navajo mechanical engineer from Holbrook is making his mark in space. And he's inspiring up and coming Arizonans back here on Earth at the same time. 

Aaron Yazzie works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. 

"What I never thought I'd be able to do is to have an opportunity to work at an institution like NASA, especially while I was still trying to find my feet at Stanford," Yazzie said.

Yazzie is Navajo, born in Tuba City and grew up in the small town of Holbrook.

Today, he's busy navigating Mars missions like Curiosity, Insight and the most recent, Perseverance, which landed on the red planet back in February.

"It's also very rewarding, seeing the things that you worked on actually be successful, get to Mars," he said. "I've been able to see us drill our first rocks and get our first rock samples."

Yazzie also holds tightly to his strong Arizona roots, family and community, visiting home often and staying connected.

"To not only work to be a good representative but also work to preserve that culture, preserve that language," he said.

Yazzie's career is soaring. However, his path to a NASA career didn't happen overnight. It started with local programs before college, geared toward helping Native Americans apply for universities and discovering their passions.

"It was also through one of those programs that I was told for the first time you are smart, and you might actually have a chance to get into a place like Stanford," he said. "So, I never really set my goals that high and it really opened my eyes to what might be possible."

These days, two of Yazzie's greatest missions involve engineering for NASA in space and inspiring the younger generation.

"I really hope that people, especially people from my community whether it be a small rural community or Native American community, I hope that they don't eliminate themselves from those big dreams that can be out there," Yazzie said.

Students who are beginning to take off on their own career journeys, looking for a place to land.

"Just because they never see somebody that looks like them or maybe from their community that has gone on to do those things before, doesn't mean that that's not open to you, that you can't be the one to do it," he said. 

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