José Miguel Ramírez Olivos: A Journey from the Heart of Mexico to the Canadian Space Agency
José Miguel Ramírez Olivos is a well-known Mexican aeronautical engineer who works at the Canadian Space Agency. As a child he wanted to be an aviator pilot, but fate led him to be a satellite controller. José Miguel originally arrived in Montreal in 2001.
Passions come in different shapes or forms — a sudden insight after a profound introspection process; an idea scribbled on the back of a napkin. That serendipitous whisper that we yearn for, sometimes without even realizing it. For José Miguel Ramírez Olivos, it came as a photograph on the cover of an encyclopedia.
The book had been a gift from his father, and it showed a Boeing 727 being assembled. What followed was what happens after a moment of instant love. “Since then, every gift that I asked for was related to planes and space. I collected capsules and lunar modules, those that you could find in Jell-O packages. That is how this curiosity began,” recalls José Miguel.
“My father, then, started driving me to the airport to watch the planes land. I was amazed to see everything: the wings, the fuselage, listening to the noise; it was an exhilarating scenery — I loved it,” he adds.
Olivos first dreamt of being a pilot with the Mexican Army, but then, after being rejected on account of poor eyesight, he opted for a different path. “Well, I said, if I can’t become a pilot, at least I will build planes,” he shares.
He joined the National Polytechnic Institute, enrolling in the Aeronautics programme and as a student he would frequently visit Mexico City International Airport.
“On Thursdays, KLM and Lufthansa’s aircraft would be there, and fortunately, the managers were receptive. It was better than the movies, being inside the cabin of the 747. My peers would look at me as a kid, but I was like: Do you have an idea of how many years I have dreamed of this?”
Soon after, he boarded a plane for the very first time, travelling to learn English in the United States.
He made the most of his first flight. “I asked the stewardess if I could visit the cabin, and astonishingly, she asked the captain and he agreed. I spent the whole flight in there, talking to the crew, asking questions, learning all that is involved in piloting a plane. Today, every time I fly, I remember that scene. Before takeoff, I recreate the dialogue between the pilots and the control tower. It is fascinating.”
The trip would alter the course of his life. “In Mexico, I was writing technical publications for Bell Helicopter, and a representative from Texas overheard my English. He hinted me about an open position in Canada, and that was the initial spark that led me to consider moving here.”
José Miguel Ramírez Olivos landed in Montréal in 2001, together with his wife and seven pieces of luggage. “Sounds like a lot, but it was nothing, really. We sold most of our possessions before leaving,” he says.
Despite his startling affair with helicopters, which still bewilders him, not everything was smooth as a newcomer. Language became a barrier.
“I thought I spoke English and French, and I realized I didn’t,” acknowledges Ramírez who, when Bell experienced financial woes, was among the first employees to be laid off. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise that led him to go back to school.
When he was enrolled in graduate school at McGill University, with a concentration on Space Systems, a professor encouraged him to apply to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). “I was surprised. I have had this long-standing dream of working for NASA. But I learned that Canada was doing enthralling work in space, too.”
José Miguel talks about his role, controlling satellites in orbit to accomplish critical missions, like conducting studies of the ozone layer, detecting meteorites on a collision course, and tracking the global maritime routes.
Every room within the John H. Chapman Space Centre, the headquarters of the CSA, represents a memory; every hallway a story, a scene of what could have been an illusion, but wasn’t. “It took me years to get to Canada, and once in Canada, it took me years to get to work here. I was about to give up,” admits Ramírez, who remarks on the importance of keeping the sense of possibility alive.
Decades after that epiphanic encounter with that Boeing 727, José Miguel Ramírez Olivos, who built Play-Doh airplanes in kindergarten, and who, driven by his quest for knowledge, has worked his way to the upper echelons of Canada’s space world, and was recognized as one of the most influential Latinos in Canada in 2019, does not feel that his journey is over.
“More than understanding why I am here, I like to learn where I come from. To keep understanding our planet, so that we can make it better. Because everything would work better if we were in harmony with the Universe. And the way to do that is to learn so we can understand. To comprehend our history and our evolution,” he says.
“How was it that the conditions became possible for you and me to be speaking, right here, right now, after millions of years of life on Earth?” he asks.