Alumnus works with NASA on making rocket fuel on Mars


Rene Formoso, project manager at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Rene Formoso, project manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Mars, known as the Red Planet and fourth planet from the Sun, has an atmosphere of more than 95 percent carbon dioxide (CO2). Is it possible to use carbon dioxide and water from the Martian soil to create rocket fuel, right on the surface of Mars? Can we avoid continuous fuel delivery from Earth? Yes and yes — and FIU electrical engineering alumnus Rene Formoso II ’04 is leading a NASA project to figure out how to accomplish it.

Formoso, project manager for the Mars CO2 Collection Subsystem, manages a key part of a larger In-Situ Resource Utilization System. The subsystem is expected to run continuously on the surface of Mars for more than a year prior to any astronauts arriving, obtaining carbon dioxide by filtering out dust, freezing carbon dioxide and sublimating it so that downstream systems can make the rocket fuel required to bring astronauts safely back to Earth.

“It is very expensive to launch,” said Formoso. “Astronauts cannot take everything with them when they go to Mars. To reduce the overall cost of human exploration on Mars, we need to launch humans from Mars back to Earth by making the fuel on the surface of Mars. Bringing all that fuel from Earth would be too costly.”

Formoso manages the budget, schedule, design, development, integration and testing of the subsystem components. He works closely with various NASA teams across the agency to move this project forward.

Formoso’s experience at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, goes far back 14 years. Prior to being a project manager, Formoso developed models and simulations for payload systems aboard Resource Prospector (RP) — a lunar project determined to drill into permanently shadowed regions on the poles of the moon to quantify water bound in the regolith. Regolith is a layer of loose superficial deposits like dust, soil and broken rock, covering solid rock.

Rene Formoso running tests.

Rene Formoso running tests.

When Formoso first joined NASA in 2004, he was an aerospace technologist. One of his favorite tests to perform used to be called the “red-line/green-line” test, done just a month prior to a space shuttle launch. Sitting vertically in the commander and pilot seats, Formoso ensured that every display was ready for astronauts to travel to space and return safely back to Earth. A red or green line on the edge of the liquid crystal display screens indicated a sign of system failure.

Edsel Sanchez and Rene Formoso, FIU alums who interned at NASA and received full-time job offers.

Edsel Sanchez and Rene Formoso, FIU alumni who interned at NASA and received full-time job offers.

This role was very similar to the internship position Formoso held at NASA prior to graduating from FIU with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a concentration in power systems. He obtained the internship through Martha Centeno, former associate professor at FIU, who informed him of a summer internship opportunity at NASA during his junior year of college.

The internship’s duration was 10 weeks and Formoso’s main responsibility was to write a web-based database to keep track of avionics hardware.

“I knew very little about programming at the time, but my mentor, Steve Livermore, guided me along the way,” said Formoso. “I was also grateful for Kathy Milon, who coordinated tours and showed me the ins and outs of how NASA operates.”

After completing his internship and returning to Miami, Formoso received a call from his mentor as he was playing pool in the Panther Pit at FIU’s Engineering Center. Livermore offered Formoso a full-time job. Formoso’s colleague, Edsel Sanchez, also received a full-time offer from NASA.

Rene Formoso and Judy Formoso led the 2001 Spring Luau event at FIU.

Rene Formoso and Judy Formoso led the 2001 Spring Luau event at FIU.

Formoso would have to move out of Miami, and he hoped his college sweetheart, Judy, who he met at FIU, would join him in this new adventure. Formoso had always been interested in leadership. During his sophomore year, he attended a student programming council meeting at FIU’s Graham Center, where he met his future wife.

“Judy walked into the room and I knew I wanted to meet her,” confessed Formoso. “This was a time when social media wasn’t really around and so I just signed up to all the teams she signed up to without her noticing.” They led a student event together in 2001 and began dating shortly after.

Formoso graduated with his bachelor’s in the spring of 2004 and moved with his wife to Cape Canaveral in the fall, where they bought their first home together.

“I love working for NASA,” says Formoso. “It’s an inspirational organization that is constantly motivating me. I like that there is plenty of room for career growth at NASA. I love watching rockets launch, especially when they take place at night, turning the pitch-black sky into day for a few minutes. My kids love NASA, too!”

Formoso and his wife have three boys, a six-month-old, a six-year-old and a nine-year-old.