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Sky’s the limit for student working at rocket company

LIBERIA – Carlos Martínez’s family thought he was playing a prank on them the day he called to tell them about a new job.

It happened shortly after he moved to the northern province of Guanacaste after graduating from high school in rural southern Costa Rica. A company with an intriguing name had just offered him a job and he called to share the news with his family.

The job offer came from the Ad Astra Rocket Company, a spaceflight engineering company located on the EARTH University’s La Flor campus. For Martínez,  then a 19-year-old gas station attendant whose family migrated from Nicaragua while he was a young child, the opportunity to work for Tico astronaut Franklin Chang was like a dream-come-true.

“At first [my family] didn’t believe me,” Martínez said. “It obviously wasn’t something that they were expecting to hear.” As it turned out, most of Martínez’s family thought he was lying.

But the story was real: while Martínez was pumping gas at his job down the street from Ad Astra, Chang’s brother Ronald Chang, who manages the Ad Astra plant, drove to the station for a fill-up.

“I told the attendants that we were looking to hire someone to help us at the plant and that it could possibly be one of them,” Ronald Chang recalls. “Almost everyone at the station wanted to work with us, but I told them that in order to work with us, they had to be a high school graduate, a current student, or someone hoping to return to school to advance their education.”

Although Martínez’s many co-workers were interested in what turned out to be a maintenance job at the high-profile plant, Martínez’s positive attitude helped him stand out, Ronald Chang said.

“His attitude was better than those of the other applicants’,” Ronald Chang said. “He wasn’t as concerned as they were regarding money or a [work] schedule, but [was interested in] the opportunity to learn. When he came in for the interview, he was wide-eyed at the possibility of developing [professionally]. He was exactly the type of person we were looking for.” 

Martínez, whose boyish looks belie an engaging and mature demeanor, admits he was intimidated on that first day of work back in 2006.

“I was just a kid. I went from basic service at a gas station to working with machines and wires and things I’d never seen before,” he said. “I didn’t think I was qualified to start working around motors used for rockets. But everyone here took me in and showed me around and taught me how things worked.”

Martínez didn’t grow up with a lot of gadgets around the house. His parents, who are poor farmers, don’t even have a telephone.

Nevertheless, four years after the gas-station encounter with Ronald Chang, Martínez now oversees the maintenance workshop of several motors used in Ad Astra’s primary project, the VASIMR rocket, which could become the first plasma-fueled rocket to travel into outer space (TT, Aug. 11, 2010).

Martínez has become so skilled at his duties at Ad Astra that in 2007 he accompanied a team of Costa Rican experts to VASIMR’s central plant in Houston, Texas,  to assist specialists there in assembling a type of electrical magnet.

“The lab in Houston needed a team of 3 or 4 specialists to help manufacture a magnet for the project there,” Ronald Chang said. “Carlos had constructed several of the magnets here in Costa Rica, so he was assigned to help with the project. It’s incredible to think that the Houston lab consulted Costa Rican engineers for assistance, and it was great for Carlos to get that opportunity to help out. It was his first time in an airplane.”

Currently, Martínez is a second-year engineering student at the University of Costa Rica in Liberia. He has studied English, is a capable electrician and mechanic, and is a vital part of the 12-person Ad Astra team in Liberia.

“After he graduates, we’re hoping that he’ll stay with us to become one of our engineers,” Ronald Chang said. “We are a  small team now but we expect to grow considerably in the next few years. At that point we’ll need experienced engineers to step into management roles. We’re hoping Carlos will become one of those leaders.”

Martínez is happy where he’s at.

“Just imagine, the names Ad Astra and Franklin Chang are magical in Costa Rica. You say you work for them and doors open. The opportunity I have here is invaluable and I am always learning. New horizons continue to open up,” he said.

If the Ad Astra Rocket achieves its long-term goal of reaching Mars, Martínez’s horizon will only grow wider.


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