From Brownsville to Mission Control

Victor De Los Santos — 8 June 2020

“I have always had a passion for all things space-related ever since I was younger. I was that stereotypical kid who said ‘I want to be an astronaut.” – Alex Zamora

Emmanuel Alex Zamora, Engineer for the International Space Station

Alex Zamora (known by his friends as Alex) was born and raised in Brownsville and, just like many others, he grew up with dreams of working in the space industry. After graduating from Hanna High School in 2011, Zamora decided to continue his education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He went on to receive his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering in 2016, and after gaining a couple years worth of hands-on experience with energy providers — including an internship with the Brownsville Public Utilities Board — he was ready to make his dream a reality. Soon after, Zamora found a job listing that aligned with his interests and experience, applied, and became an electrical engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in direct support of the Electrical Power System (EPS) of the International Space Station. The International Space Station (ISS) takes 90 minutes to complete an orbit around Earth. For the greater part of the orbit, the ISS is powered by the Sun, using its Solar Array Wing (SAW) to turn solar energy into usable power. For 35 minutes each orbit  though, the Space Station is in an eclipse, meaning it is inside of Earth’s shadow. The Sun’s light is blocked and cannot reach the Station, and so as a result, the Station relies on rechargeable batteries for consistent power during the eclipse part of the orbit — this is where the EPS teams come into play.

Alex Zamora at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas
Alex's work station at the NASA Johnson Space Center

The ISS was first launched into orbit in 1998, equipped with nickel-hydrogen batteries. These batteries (48 total) were built to last for only 6.5 years. In 2017, NASA began hosting a series of EVAs (Extravehicular Activities, also known as “spacewalks”) with a mission to have all the original batteries replaced with new lithium-ion batteries, which are lighter in weight and can store higher amounts of power. The most recent EVA for battery upgrades was performed in January 2020 by NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir. Now, only 14 of the 38 original nickel-hydrogen batteries remain on the ISS to be replaced.

Starting this Friday, June 26th, 2020 at 5am Central Time, NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Chris Cassidy will be kicking off the final series of Battery EVAs (four total) to replace the last of the remaining nickel-hydrogen batteries for their lithium-ion successors. This EVA will be ISS Expedition 63 US Spacewalk #65. During these difficult, multiple hour-long missions — while spaceflight fans around the world will be watching the astronauts exit the International Space Station in spacesuits to get to work via NASA’s live stream — Brownsville’s very own Alex Zamora will be in the Mission Evaluation Room (MER) of the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, leading the Electrical Power Systems (EPS) team tasked with providing real-time console support, confirmation of successful battery integration, and, if needed, anomaly resolution.

Q&A with Alex

Q: What’s it like working at NASA’s world-famous Johnson Space Center?

A: “Working at JSC is a dream come true. Every time I drive in, on my left I can see rocket park which has a Saturn V, rocket engines and models of the rockets used in the Mercury program. Makes me smile every time. Walking through the metal doors with the words ‘Mission Control Center’ over top always gives me chills.”

Q: What are the main roles associated with your job?

A: “My roles include a variety of things from on-orbit telemetry analysis to review of operations products and mission planning. The day-of-EVA roles include real-time console support and anomaly resolution if required.”

Q: How do you and your team prepare for the battery-replacement EVA missions?

A: “Months-long preparation is required for EVAs, everything from EMU suit preparation on-orbit to EVA procedure development on the ground. Tedious operational product development that require lots of inputs from different teams and iterative polishing.”

Q: What are your interests? 

A: “Astronomy, cars, video games, and the outdoors.”


Q: Has your perception of the International Space Station changed since it became your duty to help keep it powered?

A: “Absolutely. I remember watching shuttle launches on the news and not knowing what the purpose was of the shuttle launch — I just knew it was going to space and that was cool. I later learned of the many shuttle missions it took to achieve a fully functioning station. I now understand more details of each mission, but more importantly the purpose of this lab. It is bettering life on Earth by creating a unique environment that allows research that isn’t possible anywhere else.”

Q: What is your most memorable experience or mission?

A: “I’ve actually had a chance to talk to the Increment 59/60 crew which included Christina Koch, Nick Hague and David Saint-Jacques. I congratulated them on an excellent job done on a few of the Battery EVAs I had been a part of.”

Q: What first sparked your interest in astronomy/space? 

A: “I was that kid that would watch the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS over and over again. I knew every line and my favorite parts were the space battles. Working in space always was a dream that never felt achievable. Once I got to college, I realized my goals were realistic because a few of my friends were interning at JSC. I tried my best to match their drive, determination and attitude.”


Alex's Dream of Space

Before wrapping up, we asked Zamora if he had advice for anyone who might share the same dreams he had to work for NASA while growing up in Brownsville. Alex replied with two simple tips: “Get out of your comfort zone and never stop challenging yourself.”

Every day, we are witnessing new discoveries in space science, exploration, and technology. Over the past few years, Brownsville in particular has become a focal point for these types of developments. From the construction of an interplanetary spaceport on the beach to a university fostering groundbreaking astronomical research, the potential in this city “on the border by the sea” is steadily revolutionizing not only spaceflight, but the fundamental scientific understanding of the Universe that makes spaceflight possible.

Before NASA and SpaceX’s recent Crew Dragon Demo-2 launch, which carried NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk emphasized the importance of “reigniting the dream of space.” Our mission at the South Texas Astronomical Society is to spark community-driven interest in astronomy and space exploration — while recognizing key individuals such as Emmanuel Alex Zamora who used their passion and capabilities to make their “dream of space” a reality.

From left to right: Victor De Los Santos, Alex Zamora, and Marija Jette