Victor Luo Is Making NASA Cool for Coders

“We’re in the VHS stage of VR—the brick-phone stage,” says Victor Luo, with a laugh. He’s the lead project manager for the OpsLab at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Luo works on the space agency’s virtual– and augmented-reality projects, enabling engineers here on Earth to design virtual space shuttles in 3D and then assist astronauts on the real shuttles orbiting outside the atmosphere. In 2013, Luo was instrumental in rolling out NASA’s first console video game, and he consults regularly on Hollywood projects. Not bad for only 32 years old.

Born in Beijing to engineer parents, Luo left the mainland for Hong Kong when he was 4, then moved to Indiana a year later, where his father studied for a master’s degree. When he was 9, the family moved to Silicon Valley.

The one constant in his life was space, which he found endlessly fascinating. Aerospace engineering, however, proved a harder sell in college for Luo, who was much better at abstract tasks such as computer programming. “I switched to aerospace for a semester—I thought I needed that for NASA,” he says. “The chair of the department said, ‘You don’t have to be in aerospace to be in the space industry.’ It was a lightbulb moment, and I went back to computers.”

After earning a degree in computer engineering from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and a master’s in computer science from the University of Southern California, Luo interned at Boeing Co. before getting a job at NASA in 2008, writing code that simplified and improved operations for the Mars Curiosity Rover. He eventually found a home in the OpsLab, where he was quickly promoted, taking charge of the operation this year.

Luo’s work might sound far-fetched, but Skip Rizzo, a research director at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies who’s used VR to help veterans overcome trauma, is on board. “It’s a natural direction to give people visualizations for things they can’t be there for and interact with,” he says. “Think about aviation simulation: There was a gigantic drop in crash landings with people learning to fly by instrument. We’re at another tipping point here.”

In addition to his VR work, Luo has begun stepping up recruitment among tech types, who are more likely to picture themselves in Silicon Valley than at Cape Canaveral. “People think of NASA as this kind of archaic institution that can’t move quickly,” he says. “We like to challenge that.”

Funding is always an issue at a government agency, but Luo is optimistic about NASA’s future backing. “Space is really hip right now,” he says. “These types of technology are going to enable a new generation of space exploration. It won’t just be astronauts landing on Mars. It will be everyone on Earth. This tech will enable that immersion. That’s the vision.”

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