By Brian Hagberg
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
(Editor’s Note: “I am SCHRIEVER” is a diversity campaign dedicated to recognizing the diversity within our base as well as highlighting the way this diversity makes us stronger and better able to ensure mission success.)
“When ships to sail the void between the stars have been built, there will step forth men to sail these ships,” Johannes Kepler.
As children, we’re often told to follow our dreams. Many dream of becoming famous or doing great things such as curing diseases, becoming President, winning Olympic gold or traveling to space. For Capt. Rodrigo Ocampo, 4th Space Operations Squadron, his childhood revolved around space.
“My mother tells everybody that ever since I was little I would always talk about space and [wanting] to work with space and go into space,” he said. “Everything was space, space, space.”
For Ocampo, the question was never what he wanted to do when he grew up, but how to get there. Colombia, where Ocampo was born, is known for many things, but its space program isn’t one of them (the Colombian Space Commission was created in 2006). Despite a happy life, Ocampo’s parents wanted to provide him and his siblings a better chance to follow their dreams.
“I had a really happy childhood,” Ocampo said. “I had both my parents; we lived in the south part of [Bogota]. Both of my parents had decent jobs, but they didn’t see much opportunity for us. They just couldn’t see the opportunity for that kind of careeror job or opportunities in Colombia.”
Ocampo’s family moved to south Florida when he was 12. His shyness, coupled with the fact he could read and write, but not speak, English, made it difficult for him to make friends.
“[School] was hard for me, just because I was really shy,” Ocampo said. “I knew some English, I could read and write it, but I could not speak it. I would be too embarrassed to speak it, so that compounded my shyness, so I became that much more introverted, but that drove me to stick with school, drove me more into my studies and into doing well in life.”
That focus allowed him to excel in honors classes and really begin exploring space as a career opportunity.
“I was so focused and dedicated. I knew I still wanted to do space stuff,” he said. “From eighth grade on, I was reading astronaut bios, learning about aerospace engineering and all the amazing things that had been done first here in the States. That drove me and focused me even more. My parents achieved their goal.”
Knowing what he wanted to do, but not really sure how to get there, Ocampo began exploring his options. His exploration led him to a local Civil Air Patrol squadron. Coming from a country where military service is mandatory, the military wasn’t even a blip on Ocampo’s radar.
“My family would be against the military because in Colombia, military service is mandatory, so you’re forced to go,” he said. “Just from my family’s history, I would never have thought of it. In high school, I knew I needed extracurricular activities to build my resume for the university. I started looking into options and found out about the Civil Air Patrol.”
Ocampo attended a meeting and found out the CAP curriculum covered both aerospace and military space information, including the military background of many astronauts. The possibilities of a career in space through the military were intriguing.
“I started learning more about aerospace and learning more about military space, learning about World War II and learning about all these advanced technologies, secret advanced technologies that were being developed for the war effort and putting all those pieces together, all of that stuff interested me,” Ocampo said. “If they were developing those very cool technologies back then, imagine what kind of technologies we’re developing now. [I also learned] the Department of Defense has a bigger budget than NASA does for space. I was like, ‘Well, I should go where the money is.’”
The possibility of using his military service as a road to becoming an astronaut would be easier than competing with people with PhDs, he joked.
While studying engineering at the University of Florida he simultaneously earned his U.S. citizenship and completed ROTC coursework. It was during his time at UF Ocampo met John Gaebler, an aerospace engineer, and the pair quickly discovered a shared passion for space.
“One of his life motivations is to be an astronaut,” Gaebler said. “I’m a government civil servant at NASA, I know several people who want to be astronauts and of everyone I’ve heard express that dream, Rigo is the most capable.”
Ocampo’s first assignment after graduating from UF was Edwards Air Force Base, California. During his time there he was able to both follow in the footsteps of one of his heroes and get a small taste of his life’s ambition.
“I was in the same bunker as Wernher von Braun, where he tested his F1 engine, the Saturn 5 engines that took man to the moon,” Ocampo said. “He was one of my heroes growing up because I knew him as the director of the Apollo missions.”
The space shuttle Endeavour had recently landed at Edwards and, while touring the base with a friend, Ocampo was given the rare opportunity to step inside the shuttle.
“We went to the area where the orbiter was. It was already raised on the scaffolding, so you could walk underneath it and see the landing gear,” Ocampo said. “We asked to stand in line and they said you can go in. Right after a landing, it was like holy smokes a dream come true, I’m checking all my boxes. I sat in the commander’s seat and was like, ‘This is awesome!’”
Firmly entrenched in a military space career, Ocampo was able to start checking boxes in other life goals. An avid outdoor adventurer, Ocampo had already scaled several 14,000 foot peaks in both California and Colorado and began toying with the idea of climbing the 23,000 foot Mount Aconcagua in South America.
Then Gaebler called with an idea. Wanting to celebrate turning 30 in dramatic fashion, Gaebler suggested the pair climb the 19,341 foot Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I set that trip up, though I’m pretty sure it was on his bucket list as well,” Gaebler said. “Whenever I schedule a trip or adventure, I check to see if he wants to come along.”
Not only did Kilimanjaro present the physical challenge to summit, it gave Ocampo a feel for what it might be like to be in space one day.
“You start off in the town, a jungle area almost, a savannah,” Ocampo said. “By car you get almost to temperate forest-like scenery, and that’s where you really start to hike. Going through the forest, it was beautiful. Then it starts getting more barren, more barren, more like a moon landscape. It was really cool to see.
“I think the coolest thing for me was reaching the peak. You start the ascent at like two in the morning, in the middle of the night, starry sky and no moon out, the moon had set. You kind of feel like you’re in space, it’s pitch black.”
Even though they share a thirst for adventure, Gaebler knows where Ocampo’s true passion remains.
“He’s done a lot of programs like NASA Academy,” Gaebler said. “He’s all about aerospace.”
From Colombia to Florida, California to Colorado and Tanzania, Ocampo’s focus has always been up, beyond the atmosphere and into the vastness of space.