A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Ignacio Lopez-Francos, Research Engineer at NASA Ames Research Center
What is your background?
I grew up in a small city in the south of Spain called Granada. It's a cliche now, but I've always been interested in learning and understanding how things work; I remember breaking apart battery-powered devices like alarm clocks and toasters to observe their inner workings. This interest in machines and technology persisted, and eventually, I pursued a degree in Industrial Engineering at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM). After graduating with a Bachelor's and Master's in the subject, I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. I obtained my second Master's degree in Supply Chain Management.
This is where things start to get interesting: Many people, particularly from my home country, Spain, often ask me how I ended up at NASA. And I think it's worth stating up front that my career trajectory hasn't been linear; it's marked by many turns, chances taken, trial and error. It's been a learning process.
My first job out of college was at a quick-serve startup, where I helped architect the company's end-to-end supply chain. This experience taught me the art of 'building a plane while you fly it.’ A couple of years into the job, I took an online course on Supply Chain Analytics at MIT and learned how large companies leveraged data and algorithms to optimize their supply chains. This was my first foray into the fields of machine learning (ML) and big data. Fairly soon after that, I decided to pivot to a career in Data Science. First as a consultant with numerous clients in numerous industries, then in-house at United Airlines. At United, I helped establish the company's first centralized Data Science & Innovation team and learned to deploy ML models in production in support of both the commercial and operational sides of the airline.
My next Data Science gig was at Meta, in support of their strategy and operations group. Here I helped define and scale the ecosystem marketing partners and learned how to 'move fast’. This was a short-lived, but extremely eye-opening experience.
I believe I networked myself into the space sector. Living in the Bay Area means having access to incredible events and people. After connecting with a group of scientists at a major AI conference, I was invited to attend an event co-organized by NASA hosted at the SETI Institute. Through the connections I made at this event, I landed a job at NASA Ames' Space Portal Office (SPO) as an AI Research Scientist leading the research and development of AI applications in support of NASA's science and exploration objectives. This role involved diving deeply into new problem spaces and building proficiency quickly in areas ranging from remote sensing and lunar resource mapping, to robot localization and precision landing. During the pandemic, I joined the Intelligent Systems division, and as a Research Engineer, I design and develop autonomous platforms, software tools, and testing methodologies.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
I try to remind myself not to lose sight of the value of my unusual career trajectory. In fact, I'm proud of the risks I've taken: Leaving my hometown to study in a different city, leaving my country to emigrate to the US (without any connections, an imperfect grasp of English), and having the courage to learn new things, even switch careers, in pursuit of my passions.
More recently, at NASA, I'm proud of a collaboration with colleagues from the University of Oxford and ETH Zurich through the Frontier Development Lab (FDL). We designed a novel ML algorithm named HORUS (Hyper-effective nOise Removal U-net Software) that can enhance orbital imagery of the permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) on the Moon and allow us to see what's inside for the first time. These are regions in total darkness and some of the coldest places in the solar system that are believed to host large quantities of water-ice and are targets of the upcoming Artemis missions. Our technique, presented at the CVPR conference and published in Nature Communications journal, enables mission planners to identify hazards, plan traverses, and outline operations ahead of time. The most exciting part is that we worked with NASA colleagues at Ames to produce enhanced maps for the upcoming VIPER mission, NASA's first mobile robotic mission to the Moon. I like to highlight this project as an example of how to take something from research and implement it on a mission.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
In retrospect, I think it's been a combination of making the right choices with help from mentors, a willingness to learn new things, and some good luck. For the parts that I had control over, I feel I can attribute my progress to a few personal traits:
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
I used to compete in swimming at an elite level, which required strict daily training for ~2-3 hours, 6 days a week. Balancing schoolwork with training and competitions was extremely challenging, but it taught me to cultivate discipline and perseverance that I suspect helped me later on in my professional life.
My education in general engineering at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) also provided me with a strong and broad foundation in engineering disciplines—mechanical, electrical, structural, material sciences—for all of the roles and projects I’ve ever pursued.
In a world where so many jobs require narrow or highly specialized skills, it is rare to find people with broad theoretical knowledge or training. The nice thing about working in the space sector is that some roles require a holistic approach: when designing a rover for outer space, for example, you bring together a combination of engineering disciplines such as mechanical, power, thermal, electrical, structural, thermodynamics, metallurgy, etc.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
What I've enjoyed the most: The projects where I've had the support and freedom to explore unconventional ways of solving the problem at hand. Over the years, I've found out that I thrive in environments, and under management, that promote creative thinking and autonomy. I've also enjoyed past opportunities to partner closely with academic researchers and scientists immensely, where I feel I can learn a lot from their deep expertise.
I'm a proponent of building trust and camaraderie with my colleagues, which brings me to what I've enjoyed the least in my career: toxic workplace politics and helicopter managers. We've all experienced these things. I've worked at startups, mid-size consulting firms, and large organizations; a lack of care for the workplace community and culture in companies of any size is a breeding ground for stagnation
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
It should be no surprise that I think the space sector is going to create many economic opportunities and attract a lot of talent in the future. Currently, the majority of the commercial space sector is largely focused on the design and operation of satellite communications, predominantly in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), which provide telecommunications, internet infrastructure, and Earth Observation capabilities. In the last few years, we've also seen an increase of public and private capital going towards companies focused on Lunar and beyond orbits, but this is still relatively small.
I expect this to shift in the next decade. Changes will be driven by the rapid decrease of the per-kilogram cost of sending payloads to space (thanks to the brilliant work at SpaceX and Rocket Labs) and the kick-off of NASA's long-awaited Artemis program. As someone who wasn't alive during the Apollo era, I'm incredibly excited for this last point.
Both will result in a new era of space exploration and unleash new economic opportunities. For example, we'll need infrastructure that can maintain continuous robotic and human presence on the lunar surface, including power generation and distribution, telecommunications, a navigation system, and ground transportation. We'll also need new technologies to mine the lunar regolith and extract resources (i.e. ISRU). To support this expansion, there will be a demand for companies (and talent) that can build spacecraft components, launch vehicles, propulsion systems, provide data analytics and mission services, etc.
Through the exploration and habitation of the Moon and the technologies and knowledge developed in the process, we'll embark on our most ambitious project as a species and send our first human mission to Mars. I realize this sounds like science fiction, but there's a chance it could all kick off in the 2030s. Imagine what the space sector might look like in 30-40 years if all goes well! When I think about my 2-year-old son's generation coming of age, I like to imagine that a career as an astronaut will be common.Our exploration ambitions throughout the solar system will require building the next generation of spacecrafts and robotics systems with high levels of autonomy. These systems will be equipped with sensors, powerful onboard computers, and robust ML algorithms to be able to land, navigate regions in our solar system never explored, collect samples, and even return back to Earth, all autonomously. It's exciting to witness the rapid advances in the fields of AI/ML and robotics in industry and academia, as they will directly contribute to helping us explore the universe like never before. Biotechnology is another area I think will benefit from advances in AI/ML. We've had a glimpse of this with DeepMind's revolutionary AlphaFold, which allows us to accurately predict the structure of proteins. I'm excited to see more advances like this in personalized healthcare.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
One piece of advice I'd like to pass on is to practice being curious; then, of course, to follow your curiosity. I find that exposure to hobbies, careers, interesting people, ideas, and cultures becomes more difficult with age, so it's important to be deliberate about this early on. Find opportunities that allow you to get out of your comfort zone. Meet new people, learn new things, and travel to new places. If you are at university studying, say, a very niche topic, take advantage of student exchange programs to broaden your perspective. Likewise, if you've started your professional career, make an effort to meet co-workers from other divisions and disciplines, show genuine curiosity about what they are working on, and tell them about the problems you are working on. I've often found out that the most interesting projects I've worked on sprung from accidental conversations. At the very least, you might walk away with a new idea, technique, or toolkit.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
It may not be widely known that NASA is committed to (and invested in) increasing the general public's interest in space by fostering STEM education and inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. As someone who benefitted from similar outreach opportunities to pursue my own education in STEM, this made me even prouder to join NASA.
Amongst the many initiatives NASA has launched in support of this, I'm particularly fond of NASA en Español, a recent initiative to expand NASA's communications to the Spanish-speaking community. The team behind this initiative, led by Maria Jose Viñas, is doing a tremendous job creating original, accessible content on NASA in Spanish, such as news about the current NASA missions, science education for kids, live broadcasts in Spanish, interviews with Hispanic professionals at NASA, and even a podcast. This content is reaching the Hispanic community in the US as well as Spanish-speaking audiences in Latin America and Spain and is inspiring a new generation to participate in the space sector.