National Hispanic Heritage Month: Sandra Cauffman, NASA Engineer

Sandra Cauffman, who has charted a trailblazing career as an engineer at NASA, was born in the central region of Costa Rica in 1962. She and her brother grew in a single-parent home after their mother Maria Jerónima Rojas made the lifesaving decision to leave her abusive husband. Even with their mother holding down two or three jobs at any one time to help make ends meet, Cauffman and her brother spent much of their youth in extreme poverty. These circumstances, however, did not discourage Cauffman from dreaming about a career in space science.

Cauffman’s interest in that type of career took shape when, as a seven-year-old, she was watching TV at a neighbor’s house and saw live coverage of Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin becoming the first people to walk on the Moon. Cauffman recounted years later how she told her mother at that time, “I want to do that someday.” Her mother responded, “You never know; the world goes round and round and if you work and study hard, you never know where opportunities are going to come from.”

After Maria Jerónima Rojas married a U.S. citizen, the family left Costa Rica and settled in Virginia. Cauffman subsequently earned a B.S. in physics and both a B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering from George Mason University in Virginia. She started working at NASA as contractor in 1989 and two years later she became an employee of that agency.

While she is not the astronaut that she dreamt about becoming in her youth, Cauffman has still helped make innovative and far-reaching contributions to space travel during her time to date as a NASA engineer. “Working at NASA has enabled me to design and test hardware, work side by side with talented scientists and design new missions for space exploration,” Cauffman said during a TED talk in 2014. “I work with so many amazing people who think of things nobody had ever done before, and they inspire me so much every day.” Cauffman currently serves as deputy director of the Science Mission Directorate’s astrophysics division at the NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In recognition of her contributions, Cauffman has been awarded NASA’s Exceptional Achievement Medal. She is also a three-time recipient of that agency’s Outstanding Leadership Medal. In addition, Cauffman is an honorary member of both the National Academy of Sciences and — in Costa Rica — the Colegio Federado de Ignenieros y Arquitectos. In 2017, the government of Costa Rica issued a postage stamp in her honor.

As one of the highest-ranking Hispanic women at NASA, Cauffman has become a role model for young people likewise aspiring to careers in science. ”And maybe I haven’t accomplished everything I want to do,” she noted in a 2021 interview with NASA communications strategist Thalia Patrinos. “But I can show little girls and little boys out there that it doesn’t matter where you come from. You can be anything that you want to, even when you have had a very difficult upbringing.”

Photo Credit: Public Domain

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