Space Odyssey

Aerospace engineer Raymond Ellyinís quest tounlock the mysteries of the solar system

It is a marvel of human ingenuity how with his feet firmly planted on the ground, Raymond Ellyin’s reach extends far beyond the boundaries of earth. An advanced aerospace engineer in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Caltech in Pasadena, California, Ellyin has devoted his entire career to pushing the limits of scientific knowledge and technological advancement in the realm of unmanned space exploration. The leading U.S. center for robotic spaceflight, JPL engineered and operates 19 spacecrafts and 10 major instruments carrying out planetary, Earth science and space-based missions. Helping JPL unlock the mysteries of our solar system has proven immensely rewarding for Ellyin. “I am proud to be working for an institution that uses engineering and state-of-the-art technology to solve one-of-a-kind problems in order to deal with the challenging environment of outer space.”

Among a stellar list of accomplishments, Ellyin was part of the team behind NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, widely known as the Curiosity rover, when it successfully landed on the surface of Mars in 2012—an incredibly complex and delicate maneuver no other nation has since been able to replicate. “I will never forget the excitement that filled that room,” Ellyin recalls. “It was an extremely proud moment in my life. Years of hard work and sacrifice were being celebrated by thousands of engineers and scientists.”

A recipient of the NASA Achievement Award, Ellyin’s pioneering work is at the forefront of the quest to expand the human presence in the solar system and find life beyond earth. He is currently juggling a record three flight projects—each requiring years of meticulous preparation—including an ambitious plan to land a robotic spacecraft on Europa, an icy moon orbiting Jupiter some 390 million miles from Earth thought to hold an ocean of water, and with it quite possibly, extraterrestrial life. Adding to the monumental complexities of engineering state-of-the-art robotic spacecrafts, however, is a critical consideration of their impact on other planets. In his role as a Planetary Protection Systems Manager, it is Ellyin’s job to ensure a spacecraft does not overly contaminate celestial bodies when executing its mission. “If we land on Europa and penetrate the ice and contaminate it with a radioactive heat source, we can jeopardize the integrity of the moon. My role is to make sure we remain below the threshold of allowable bio-burden we are permitted to carry on board our spacecraft.” 

It is a mission much closer to home, however, which brings Ellyin the most satisfaction. Three mornings each week, the humble engineer drives to the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School to volunteer his time to teach Advanced Placement physics to young Armenian students. “I consider myself extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to give back to the next generation of young Armenians,” he proudly acknowledges. “In my opinion every Armenian has an obligation to contribute in some way towards the Armenian cause, and the teaching platform allows me to make sure that my students are better equipped to earn positions of power and influence. I personally feel like this is the most effective way for us to have our voices heard by members of the international community.” By sharing his wisdom and exposing his students to an industry into which they would otherwise not have any insight, Ellyin is also modeling the message that success should not be measured on material wealth alone. 

Photo from Mars Exploration program of NASA

Ellyin is now at work on the Mars 2020 Rover for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program planned for 2020. Photo by NASA

What Ellyin sees as his responsibility to help his community is also a way of repaying the school that once gave a culture-shocked young boy from Iran the tools to succeed in the United States. For twelve years, the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School was both the academic and social nucleus of Ellyin’s life. “A child knows when he or she is supported,” he recalls, “and in addition to the education I received there, the dedication of the faculty and staff provided me with the love and support I needed to thrive.” He fondly recalls being first introduced to the wonders of science by his former teacher, Kevork Agopian. “He first helped cultivate my interest in physics, chemistry, and science in general. After taking a few of his courses, I soon realized that I had a real passion for the subject matter.” 

What would grow to become a life-long passion of course came as no surprise to Ellyin’s parents, to whom he credits his success above all. Ellyin’s father Victor, excelled as both a mathematician and computer programmer while his mother, Hrachia, had a successful career as a biologist. “They encouraged me and helped cultivate the already existing sense of competitiveness

I naturally possessed.” At the same time, Ellyin says his Armenian upbringing helped him maintain a strong moral character and value honor and personal integrity. “All the success in the world isn’t worth anything if you are not a good person,” he adds.

The transition from Iran to the United States in the 1980s, however, was not always easy. “Coming here from another country puts you at a disadvantage; the learning curve to adjust to a different culture, new school and university is steep.” Ellyin—like many other Armenians—refused to see his situation as a limitation but rather embraced the challenge, using it as a constant motivation to excel. “There is also an advantage because you realize early on,” he says, “that success won’t be handed to us. We have to work hard at what we achieve.” 

Helping Ellyin integrate socially outside the classroom and connect with the Armenian community, afternoons and weekends were spent enjoying the many extra-curricular activities offered by AGBU, including AYA scouts, classical music, basketball, piano, chess, running and sports. “I have always been ambitious and hard-working,” he admits, “but AGBU gave me the opportunity I needed to put myself in the best position possible.” 

As Ellyin graduated from class valedictorian at MDS to the campus of UCLA where he found himself suddenly surrounded by 45,000 undergraduate students, his attachment to his Armenian identity only grew stronger, propelling him to the highest levels of academic achievement within the biomedical engineering PhD program at UCLA.

I think that being Armenian has given me the great responsibility of making sure that I am being my very best and that I am setting an example for others to follow.

Today, Ellyin’s unique expertise is highly coveted not only by NASA, but by the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and several major commercial clients such as Chevron and Chrysler. As part of his many responsibilities at the lab, Ellyin also writes business proposals that fund the efforts of various engineers and scientists within JPL. It is a facet of his career for which he relies on his well-developed people skills. “When you are communicating with someone, and you want the chance to prove yourself, treat the other person with respect and humility no matter how much success you may have attained,” he says. With such a diverse and complex workload, time management has become one of Ellyin’s greatest challenges during the day. 

Over the course of his career, Ellyin discovered to his surprise that it was his ability to welcome setbacks that most helped him grow and learn. “I have faced several challenges in my career. I have also fallen down quite a few times. Despite what the common consensus seems to be, failure is not necessarily permanent. Grit and perseverance goes a long way. If you are resilient in this great land of opportunity,” he says, “then there really are no excuses for not being able to reach your goals.” 

It is a message he often conveys to his students, urging them to develop a thick skin to deal with adversity. “One of the reasons I teach at an Armenian school is to constantly reinforce the message that success is not just a function of hard work and a go-getter attitude, but when things don’t go your way, don’t just wave the white flag and surrender. It’s human nature to be disappointed but it is in the setbacks where most of the learning happens, and by carrying on without repeating the same mistakes you will have a much more favorable outcome.” 

 Deeply practical, Ellyin recommends his students choose their careers wisely, looking ahead to ensure by the time they graduate they will be highly marketable. And when they do become successful, to think of ways they can give back. “It is not enough to say you are proud to be Armenian. You have to ask yourself what it is that you are proud of. Ask yourself what you are doing to benefit the Armenian cause and humanity in general.” 

Banner photo by Hagop Vanesian

Originally published in the September 2017 ​issue of AGBU Insider. end character

About the AGBU Insider

AGBU Insider profiles extraordinary AGBU program alumni across a diverse set of industries and passions. With exclusive interviews and photography, each issue reveals the Armenian impact on society, community, and industry.