I Will Launch America: Juan Calero

Credit; NASA
Credit; NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (NASA PR) — Juan Calero had great interest in aerospace from an early age. That interest was initially sparked by his father, who worked in the airline industry, and the many flights his father took him on all over the world.

“I loved the trips, but really didn’t care about where we went,” said Calero. “I was more interested in the different planes and analyzing them.”

It’s that level of enthusiasm that drives Calero in his current role as integration lead for NASA’s Integrated Performance Office at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

His early passion was to become a pilot, but Calero took on electrical engineering instead. While he remembers visiting Kennedy as a kid, he never envisioned working for the space agency. That all changed when NASA held open interviews at his alma mater, the University of Miami in Coral Gables, in 1990.

“I told them I would love to work for NASA and do something that I could put my hands on,” said Calero. “I was hired to work in the Spacelab Program in an area called ‘Level IV.’ ”

With that group, Calero wrote test procedures for flight payload experiments, worked closely with technicians on test equipment, and worked side-by-side with U.S. and International developers of the payloads that flew on Spacelab missions.

Calero’s storied career spans 25 years and many NASA programs. In 2011, he was presented an opportunity he could not pass up.

“I remember attending a meeting where the manager of NASA’s emerging Commercial Crew Program told us about the new venture,” said Calero. “I knew I had to be on the cusp of that program.”

It was commercial crew’s connection to his love for airplanes that spurred Calero’s interest. The program’s approach is similar to the start of the commercial aviation industry.

“Commercial Crew is analogous to when the airlines first started putting people on planes while delivering mail. I believe that’s where we are now,” said Calero. “I can tell my kids that I was one of the first individuals to work in commercial crew before we started having commercial passengers on board spaceships going to low-Earth orbit. That’s a big legacy that excites me.”

Calero and the CCP Integrated Performance team he supports focus on the analysis and performance of the integrated spacecraft and launch vehicles.

“My group focuses on the performance of the integrated launch vehicles and spacecraft that Boeing and SpaceX are developing,” said Calero. “Everything from the trajectory of the vehicle, to the integrated loads, to the propulsion system plume effects is analyzed before we fly. When people talk about rocket science, integrated performance is rocket science and these are real rocket scientists doing the analysis.”

That analysis starts with computer models that determine the limits the vehicles can withstand. The models then are validated through test flights to ensure the performance matches those simulated models.

“This is what we will do with the next test flights and abort tests, which is important because we are able to compare the flight data to the computer models,” said Calero. “This is how we feel comfortable with the design of that integrated rocket.”

Both partners will conduct their tests separately, but will work closely with NASA to ensure they satisfy the CCP certification requirements. Once completed, the vehicles will be certified human-rated vehicles and will fly post-certification missions to the space station with crew.

Testing doesn’t stop once the initial analysis is complete. The models are verified regularly, incorporating data from tests and missions.

“The previous pad abort test SpaceX conducted provided very useful data,” said Calero. “They installed sensors on their spacecraft to measure the forces the crew would experience during an abort. We checked the analyzed results against the actual data and, sure enough, they validated that many of the models utilized were correct.”

Calero knows firsthand how simple interactions with young people can ignite their imagination and interest in the aerospace industry.

“On one of the flights I was on with my father, I got to sit next to a pilot. I couldn’t stop asking questions about how to become a pilot. I was completely blown away,” said Calero. “It sparked something in me to pursue an education in science and math and led me to the career I have today. That pilot probably doesn’t remember having that conversation and causing that spark, but I certainly do.”

Calero also understands getting the public excited as a whole is key to keeping the agency at the vanguard of space exploration.

“When we have astronauts and industry leaders travel the country meeting kids, who knows when one of them will spark their imaginations,” said Calero. “These kids could very well be the next astronauts leading the journey to Mars or the engineers and rocket scientists leading the future space programs here at Kennedy.”