‘Shoot for the moon,’ Spaceflight was once a folk tale to this NASA engineer now supporting astronaut launches

Cuong Tran, a NASA electrical engineer, moved to the US at 14, overcoming adversity to land his dream job

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – With a contagious smile and a dream job at NASA, 26-year-old Cuong Tran has a bright future but he wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the bravery of his family to leave their home in Vietnam and pursue a better life in the U.S.

Tran is an electrical engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center working on the Commercial Crew Program where he supports SpaceX and Boeing missions sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station. It’s hard to believe now but not that long ago Tran wasn’t even considering a career in space because he didn’t know it was an option.

“This is the most exciting time for NASA in a decade,” Tran said. “And I am so grateful to join NASA during this time, especially with the future missions, from the Artemis program -- creating the opportunities for the people of color and women who are qualified for the job-- is going to be a very big inspiration for a lot of people from different race, gender, identity, and especially younger generations, more kids will have bigger dreams to become what they see on the TV.”

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Born and raised in Vietnam, Tran moved with his mother and younger brother to the U.S. when he was 14 years old.

“We moved here with nothing, we left everything behind,” he said. “So there was a very big risk that we took.”

When the family first arrived, Tran said they moved around a lot and he was focused on learning English and adapting to American culture.

“I was always trying to help my mom, working part time helped my mom out to put food on the table,” Tran said of those first years. “We were constantly moving to different cities, and I had to change to different schools, and was always falling behind.”

As a teenager, he says he was old enough to see the struggle and hardship of being a single parent in a new country, learning a new language and supporting her sons. Tran said he wanted to make his mom proud and show her that it was all worth it.

Tran said he didn’t even know a career in spaceflight was a possibility until he earned an internship with NASA.

Growing up in Vietnam space exploration was a legend not reality, explains Tran.

“Space exploration is a very fancy term for me. It is still fancy for me until now, I was not being taught about space science or rocket science, either in school or at home,” Tran said. “I think that the closest things about space, and humans putting steps on the moon, are all from the folk tales that I was told, or the manga (graphic novels) that I used to read as a kid.”

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Attending community college and then Florida Atlantic University was like hitting the reset button.

Tran said he was encouraged by his friends and professors to pursue his passion for mathematics and physics. He earned a degree in electrical engineering becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college.

During an internship with the U.S. Army, Tran decided working for the government was his way of saying thank you.

“It was a way that I wanted to give back to the country because this country has given me so many opportunities,” Tran said.

Then as an intern with NASA, he realized being part of the U.S. space program could be a reality. Now Tran is busy supporting the last three SpaceX Crew Dragon launches with astronauts and preparing for more human spaceflight from Kennedy Space Center.

The 26-year-old hopes to inspire more immigrants and people from all backgrounds to work in the space industry.

“Growing up I did not see a lot of people who look like me in higher place until I started my career at NASA,” Tran said. “It has opened my eyes up because I see people who look like me, who share the same background with me who are immigrants that are playing an important role at NASA. They are my inspirations.”

The NASA engineer offered some advice for students or young professionals applying for internships with the space agency and commercial space companies.

“The companies that you want to work for, they would love to know about you, what you can bring to the table and you’re capability to be trained for the job,” Tran said. “Don’t be afraid of trying new things.”

Tran lives by the mantra, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you will land among the stars.” Because of all his hard work, persistence and perseverance, Tran is surely to help NASA land back on the moon in the next few years.