On a summer vacation twenty-three years ago, 12-year-old Juan “Tony” Castilleja and his family drove down Florida’s I-95. On the horizon, a ball of fire was rising like the sun.
“I didn’t know what it was until the next day, when the news reported the launch of a space shuttle. Curiosity sparked, I began asking, ‘What does it do, and how can I be a part of it?'” recalled the Rice University mechanical engineering alumnus (BS ’09, MME ’11).
Today, as a senior manager in Boeing’s Space and Launch portfolio, Castilleja is living his dream. He is quick to attribute its early roots to a different dream – that of his immigrant parents, who met in Brownsville and traveled to Houston for better job opportunities. Houston became the launchpad for their growing family, and education would be the key to the next generation’s success.
“Mom always encouraged us to do our best academically and her constant reminders provided a foundation for us to be inquisitive and to find pathways to areas we wanted to pursue. Another pivotal moment for me was the year I began to play viola and fell in love with performance – all the way to Carnegie Hall- and the opportunity to share your passion and journey through the sound of music. That is also when I truly began to understand the importance of teamwork. A viola player can’t be the loudest player in the symphony. A true work of art –the music’s message– can only be understood when everyone does their part.” said Castilleja.
His mother’s emphasis on a strong academic foundation, his love of performing in a team environment, his experiences as the U.S.-born child of immigrants and as a Latino who loved science, math, and physics all came together in two summer internships at NASA.
“Baytown’s high school math teacher, Sally Black, suggested first my sister and then I apply to the internship program designed to help people like us discover their talent and their voice at the Johnson Space Center,” Castilleja said.
“Those two summers, my mother would drop me off at the front door of NASA on her way to work. My first NASA mentor was Rafael Jimenez and my project was to work on computer drafting software for the design of a future Mars rover. The next summer, with the return to flight following Columbia, the space engineering spark really ignited for me. I remember sitting in the giant NASA auditorium, hearing the voice of Mission Control, surrounded by the people who had helped make it happen. To see their perseverance and passion and to hear the roar of the rocket launch within the context of Mission Control – that set my next goal. I wanted to be part of it.”
Less than a year later, Castilleja was wrapping up his freshman year at Rice University when he discovered another space engineering internship opportunity through INROADS, this time with Boeing. He said it felt like the “coolest job ever” and spent three summers interning with Boeing before he joined the company as a full-time propulsion engineer.
“Rafael Jimenez, Sally Black, and mentors at INROADS and Boeing all helped me feel like I belonged,” said Castilleja. “That was important because during my development at Rice, the courses got harder and harder. Technical classes like CAAM 336 (Differential Equations) and multivariable calculus filled me with doubt. At my lowest points, Rice faculty like Brent Houchens, Richard Tapia, and Enrique Barrera provided examples of the other side of the struggle. They showed me there were opportunities, there is support. They told me I belonged.
“Rice’s engineering education is also holistic. You come in knowing you are good at science and math, you know there are x number of credits required to get the degree, and you realize there is a lot you don’t know. Rice allows you to develop the things you don’t know, including the importance and power of communication. The ability to establish ‘the most important thing’ in building a technology is based on communication. The purpose and mission of why we do what we do and build what we build – it is all about creating value. The only way to show why what we build is valuable is to communicate that message to others. I found through Rice that I could do that, and I began giving back by developing that skill further.”
In 2006, Castilleja and several other members of Rice’s Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers – along with their advisor Houchens — developed a STEM tutoring and mentoring program for high school students at Stephen F. Austin High School. Their goal was to encourage underrepresented students to purse their interests in science, engineering, mathematics, and analytical problem solving, and to show them role models from similar backgrounds pursuing those same fields in a rigorous university.
That project evolved into the DREAM program at Rice, now in its 17th year. For Castilleja and his team, meeting with the high school students two or three times each week forced them to devise a variety of analogies to help explain concepts and ideas in ways that would resonate with the economically disadvantaged students. This practice in turn rapidly developed the Rice engineers’ technical presentation and communication skills.
“Successful communication requires you to identify what inspires someone or motivates them to respond. In the world of an engineer, you use that understanding to get someone to act on, invest in, or develop what you are bringing into this world. One of the great things about Rice is the people like Tracy Volz and others who help us transition internal learning to our outer world, teaching us the systems and ways communication can be an enabler and a differentiator,” said Castilleja.
He believes the Rice engineering development curriculum and outreach opportunities give students both ‘within the hedges’ and ‘beyond the hedges’ training. Castilleja said within the hedges, students undergo a proven system of academic training, learning to effectively communicate value. Taking that training beyond the hedges, Rice students and alumni blend their communication and engineering skills to motivate others to achieve amazing things.
He said, “When I look back at 2022 – we brought amazing engineering capabilities into the world, I got to see our team launch the Boeing Starliner in May — and it came back from an un-crewed mission beautifully. On November 16, I watched in person as the Space Launch System Artemis rocket launched on its mission to the moon and I couldn’t help but think about the spark from a summer vacation 23 years ago – I saw the rocket-sized sun of this American dream rise again.”
“Moments like these have taught me three things: 1. Dare to dream. 2. Remain patient and persevere. 3. Find your purpose. It is Rice, mentors, and tough challenges that will serve as the launch pad to achieve anything you set your mind to.”