Gail Villanueva

Growing up as the daughter of a military officer, I had what some might consider a privileged life. We lived all over the world; I had the opportunity to see and experience an abundance of this world’s great offerings and be exposed to many cultures that benefitted me throughout my life.

On one of our many trips when I was a child, I was told my dad was going to go to some “far way place” called Vietnam in the summer of 1969. At the same time, people in America were getting ready to go to a place called the Moon. It was all very vague to me, but I do remember my family was somber while the world was captivated by the “Moon race.” My dad was an aviator, so I was always very fascinated by anything that flew. I collected these “punch-out” cardboard Lunar Modules they gave away at the gas stations. Going from McGuire AFB, N.J., to San Francisco to see family, and then to our final destination of Eglin AFB, Fla., there was a pile of them in our car done by yours truly. During that trip, in an El Paso, Texas hotel one night, we watched Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon. I stood outside and stared at the moon in amazement and decided I wanted to do that too! My dad later retired in San Francisco, where I watched “drop tests” of Enterprise on television. This is when I became hooked on space.

It’s funny how the saying “life can change in an instant” can ring so close to home in certain lives, and there have been some really difficult moments along my life’s path. My life has redefined itself so many times, I’ve often felt more like a chameleon than a person! Turns out the skill of adaptability has served me well because we’ve all definitely needed it working for NASA. In May 1972, my sister passed away from a very rare cancer. My Mom suddenly died 11 months later. Our family was shattered and we never really recovered from their deaths. Instead of heading off to college, I headed out the door and on my own at the ripe age of 16. The hopes of going into the military, and becoming an Air Force pilot like my dad, were dashed.

Eventually, I earned 2 business degrees and a Florida Real Estate license. My love of NASA and my fascination of rockets never waned. In 1990 on a whim, I took the Civil Servant test, accepted an entry level position at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), and started in the Information Technology Group connecting computers on employee’s desks, teaching them about “internet,” writing user’s manuals, and was given other opportunities to help out. I earned a Hazardous Materials Technology Degree and was offered a position in the Environmental Program Office. I worked in several mediums — from remediation to natural resources. After a Center-wide reorganization, I ended up in the Propellants & Life Support Office and worked in various capacities, primarily handling Ozone Depleting Substances. These can scare people due to fines and jail sentences. I also went on to earn another college degree. One never stops being a student in life. I’ve never said “no” to any assignment, I’ve never thought any task was below me, or thought any task was not worth doing unless it was something that was not going to be “round-trip.” I learned that from my dad, the pilot.

I read everything I can about aerospace to learn as much as I can about our industry. I’ve been a member of the Public Affair’s Launch and Landing Support Team for many years and have had great opportunities there. I also had the great honor to be the Mission Support Diver for the Scott Carpenter Space Analog Station, one so rare few have heard of it. I am an Aquanaut, having stayed underwater in a habitat for more than 24 hours. I understand there have only been a few thousand folks who have achieved that.

I sometimes think in awe of all the amazing places I have been for NASA: high atop the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) roof, on top of and under launch gantries, and on top of many roofs at KSC. I can also say I’ve been on the Shuttle Launch Experience, in the Shuttle Launch Experience, and underneath it (inspecting it). I’ve even been in the infamous “Rubber Room” underneath Launch Complex 39A prior to its closing. I’ve escorted many wonderful people to exceptional places and lived to tell these tales.

My dad moved to Florida to be closer to me. He earned his celestial wings in 2009, a few weeks after STS-119. My dad told me it was the most beautiful launch he had ever seen! He lost most of his eyesight because of his age and failing health, so seeing wasn’t one of his stronger suits, but I knew what he meant. STS-119 was one of those launches that simply lit up the sky. He never totally understood what I did for a living but called me a “frustrated astronaut.” I’ll miss him until he fulfills his last promise to me.

I have had a wonderful career thus far, especially, looking back and seeing that I had all the odds stacked against me. The thing that brought my family, friends, and me the most amusement is that I had the true “Cinderella Story”— I really had the “Step-Mother and 3 Step-Sisters” come into my life. Somehow I managed to make a semi-charmed life out of it all and live happily ever after! Today I can say I am living a dream. I became the change I wanted to see in the world and it began with my circumstances.

photo of Gail Villanueva

Biography

Gail Villanueva was born at Scolthorpe AFB, England. She came to the United States at the age of 4 and spent most of her childhood living and traveling overseas and to various locations throughout the country. Ms. Villanueva lived in Jacksonville, Fla. prior to moving to Brevard County, where she raised her son and daughter. After a career as a full-time mom, school and church volunteer, real estate agent, her children’s Little League supporter, and competitive swim team mom, she decided to pursue a lifelong dream of working for NASA. Ms. Villanueva is a well-rounded employee with a vast array of experience at Kennedy Space Center. She started at an entry level position and has worked for the Information Technologies Directorate at the beginning of the desktop age for employees, the Environmental Program Office working various types of environmental media, the Center Operations Directorate in the Propellants & Life Support Group, and now is assigned in the Safety & Mission Assurance Directorate working Industrial Safety Programs. Ms. Villanueva is married and resides in Cape Canaveral. She has 4 children and 4 grandchildren. She and her husband, George, are avid sailors and live part-time on their sailboat. Mr. Villanueva is a member of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, the American Sailing Association, the Florida and Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Associations, and is an advanced scuba diver. She and her family enjoy traveling, treasure hunting, and visiting historical sites throughout the world.