National Native American Heritage Month: Aaron Yazzie, Space Exploration Engineer

A member of the Diné (Navajo) tribe, Aaron Yazzie was born in 1986 in Tuba City, Arizona. This town is part of the Navajo Nation, a Native American territory covering about 27,413 square miles (70,999.3 square kilometers) altogether in sections of northeastern Arizona; southeastern Utah; and northwestern New Mexico. Yazzie grew up in the city of Holbrook, Arizona. His father was a civil engineer and his mother a math teacher. While attending Stanford University, Yazzie interned at two NASA research facilities: the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; and the Glenn Research Center in the Cleveland area.

In 2008, Yazzie graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He subsequently began working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a research and development center that is based in Pasadena, California, and managed by the California Institute of Technology. As a mechanical engineer at JPL, Yazzie has been significantly involved in several NASA initiatives seeking to examine and better understand the physical characteristics of the planet Mars.

These initiatives have included the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, in which the rover (motor vehicle) Curiosity was dispatched to Mars to assess its climate, geology, and habitability; the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission, in which a type of spacecraft known as a lander was sent to Mars to study the deep interior of that planet; and the Mars 2020 mission, in which both the rover Perseverance and coaxial helicopter Ingenuity have been dispatched to Mars to search for possible signs of microbial life there. One of the shared aims of these missions has been to collect data that might eventually be used to help prepare for human flights to the Red Planet.

A large part of Yazzie’s contributions to those space probes has entailed developing mechanical systems for analyzing various samples from Mars. Yazzie, in comparing Mars with Earth, has remarked that the Red Planet’s surface reminds him of the landscape located near his birthplace in Arizona.

Over the years, Yazzie has been extensively involved in the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. He has also taken part in efforts to recruit other Native Americans for careers with NASA.

Photo Credit: Adexy04 (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license at

For more information on Aaron Yazzie, please check out and

Additional information on Native Americans who have made notable contributions to aviation is available at and

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