Aaron Yazzie - Diversity Spotlight - Carlson Caspers


Aaron Yazzie, Diné, earned his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University. As a Mechanical Engineer with a focus on Planetary Sample Acquisition and Handling at NASA, Yazzie designs mechanisms for acquiring geological samples from other planets. He most notably was a key member on the recent Mars rover missions.

Aaron Yazzie is Ashįįhí (Salt Clan) and born for Todích’íi’nii (Bitter Water Clan). He is the son of Kee Yazzie of Black Mesa, Arizona, and Shirley (Dugi) Yazzie of Shadow Mountain, Arizona. Aaron is Diné (Navajo) and was born in Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation in 1986. Yazzie graduated from Holbrook High School in Holbrook, Arizona, in 2004. He would go on to study and earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, where he had the opportunity to intern with two NASA research centers: the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Glenn Research Center.

Following graduation, Yazzie joined the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he first designed hardware and other mechanisms for developing ground-support equipment here on Earth. Yazzie now specializes in designing mechanical systems for NASA’s robotic space research missions, focusing on Planetary Sample Acquisition and Handling, and has made significant contributions to Mars exploration, including the Mars Science Laboratory Rover mission, the Mars InSight Lander Mission, and the Mars2020 Rover Mission. Specifically, Yazzie built the pressure inlet, the auxiliary payload sensor subsystem that functions as “the eyes and ears of the lander” and tells the lander the static atmospheric pressure, temperature, and wind levels.

Yazzie often jokes that the rocky red surface of Mars reminds him of his home on the Navajo reservation and enjoys learning about himself and his homeland. Yazzie has stated, “We’re learning about terrestrial planets and how landforms form, and that’s important to us – knowing where we come from. We have a tie to the land and knowing how things originate and how they come to be.”

Being dubbed the “Indigenous Bill Nye,” Yazzie seeks to give back to his Navajo community through speaking engagements and leading a NASA-Navajo summer camp. As Yazzie is one of only twenty-one Indigenous people at NASA, he seeks to further equity and inclusion within the STEM field and combat the imposter syndrome that follows indigenous students seeking a scientific education who feel the need to prove that they belong in the field.

Yazzie is professionally involved with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and is a Sequoyah Fellow. Other awards include the Stanford School of Engineering Dean’s Leadership Award, the 2019 NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Bruce Murray Award, and the 2021 AISES Technical Excellence Award.

Author: Justin Oakland

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