15:21 PM

Snapping Space Through the Lens of an Alumnus

By Bradi Zapata

Lighting, textures, patterns and vivid colors on even the smallest sheet of glossy paper have the power to make stories come to life and reimagine history, even from 140 million miles away.  

As a young boy, Yuri Rodea loved the freedom that a camera provided. His 1970 lens gave him a reason to explore the world. That thin strip of film laid the foundation for a strong bond with his father. And through that rudimentary camera body, with the only customizable feature being the speed of a shutter, he was able to make life his own. 

 Grinning jovially, Rodea explains some of the many layers of being a photographer: 

  1. Being an equipment nerd, knowing intricate details of lenses and camera bodies. 
  2. Living in the moment, always ready to snap experiences as they arise. 
  3. Having an artistic eye that’s always searching for imaginative shots and angles.  

Rodea grew up knowing these layers well, as photography was a pastime he shared with his father. They were not professionals, but they found joy and connection in documenting the family's outings. In his adult life, Rodea found himself spending a large amount of his time in a niche field of photography – designing cameras to be used in space.  

 On a daily basis, Rodea reimagines what a camera is. As one would assume, this is no easy task. The composition of every camera, satellite or product he works on is elaborately tested to ensure that it can survive the conditions in space because, in space, everything changes.  

A Cal State San Marcos alumnus, Rodea spent the last six years working for Malin Space Science Systems as an engineer, and he will soon start a new position with Rocket Lab, a company that launches rockets and does satellite integration. In these roles, he has been responsible for the setup, testing and calibration of cameras used in flight programs, and the list of impactful projects that he has been a part of is extensive.  

To name a few, Rodea worked on the WATSON camera used in the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission as part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach; NASA’s ShadowCam, which offers views into shadowed areas near the lunar poles; Mastcam-Z, a mast-mounted camera system with a zoom function on the Mars 2020 rover; and the Psyche multispectral imager, which provides high-resolution images with filters to discriminate between the Psyche spacecraft’s metallic and silicate constituents, etc.  

All equipment used in such projects must be failproof, robust and long-lasting – essentially perfect. This is because, in harsh and hazardous environmental conditions with unpredictable circumstances, there are no second chances or backups. Once it’s in space, the product can't be physically changed. 

“When you think of a challenge of space, imagine taking a camera out of the oven and then putting it immediately into the freezer," Rodea said. “The atmosphere in space heats up, then goes to negative temperatures, and as soon as you’re out of the sun, it’s a dead zone.”

Even small, minor details must be tested to ensure functionality, such as the type of paint on the exterior or the softness of a brush bristle. Perfection is crucial, as cameras are used to photograph galaxies for public consumption or groundbreaking scientific research. 

“These cameras introduce a new generation of people into photography, which is cool because people have wanted to explore planets since the dawn of man,” Rodea said.  

This work is quite complex in its composition, and the deadlines can be rigorous. But Rodea’s family, especially his father, is immensely proud. 

“When I talk about the different focal lengths or different types of cameras such as infrared or ultraviolet, my dad loves it,” Rodea said. “It’s a nice connection to have with him because in space fields, whether it's rockets or spacecrafts or satellites, the details are hard to understand. But for the big ideas, everyone can connect more easily and understand concepts, because I work with what they’re seeing on television."

In addition to familial support, Rodea credits his professional advancements to the ability to learn engineering during his CSUSM undergraduate years on the same equipment he uses in the workforce. Specifically, using vacuum equipment and high-end electronics for control data analysis in the lab of CSUSM physics professor Gerardo Dominguez cut out a year-and-a-half of on-the-job training and allowed him to get hired immediately.  

“I was impressed by Yuri since the very first day that I met him," said Dominguez, who's also chair of the physics department.  “He was always a standout student in my lab and is someone I’m very proud to call an alumnus.” 

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