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 has been consolidated in the Canadian Space Agency in the last years. As a child he wanted to be an aviator pilot, but fate led him to be a satellite controller. Miguel has been involved in operations and flight control of satellites, monitoring the operation of these and managing the download and reception of information from the satellite control center in Montreal, where he arrived in 2001.

The Mexican José Miguel Ramírez Olivos with the famous Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. Photo: J. M. Ramírez Olivos

PASSIONS COME IN DIFFERENT SHAPES OR FORMS. A sudden insight after an arduous and profound introspection process. A billboard in the midst of severe, soul-sucking highway traffic. An idea written in a scribble in the back of a napkin. That serendipitous whisper that we all yearn for, sometimes without realising it. For José Miguel Ramírez Olivos, it came in the form of a photography featured in an encyclopedia cover. The encyclopedia had been a gift from his father, back when he was six years old, and the picture showed a towering, behemotic Boeing 727 plane in the process of being assembled. What followed from that moment was pretty much what happens subsequently to an unforeseen moment of instant love. “After that, every gift that I asked for had to do with airplanes, or with objects related to space, I used to collect capsules and lunar modules, those that you could find in Jell-O packages. That is how this curiosity began,” recalls José Miguel, who recognises the critical support of his family since the earliest stages of what he calls the adventure of a lifetime.

“After that, my father started to take me to the airport. We had family that lived in the surrounding area, although to be honest it wasn’t that close, but after seeing them we would drive to the airport, stop in Avenida Hangares, and watch the planes land. I was always amazed to see the enormous aircrafts, the wings, the fuselage, listening to the noise they made, it was an exhilarating scenery, I just loved it.”

JOSE MIGUEL RAMIREZ OLIVOS LANDED in Montréal Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport from Mexico City back in 2001, accompanied by his wife. Together they had seven pieces of luggage. “Sounds like a lot, but it was nothing, really. We sold most of our possessions before leaving,” mentions Ramírez, who still fondly remembers that flight, which he says he enjoyed as much as the very first time.

“It was the first step of a long journey, a lifelong process, you could say. Canada first caught my attention when I was still in school. I heard of an aerospace graduate programme in Concordia University, but I didn’t follow through with it. Then I had a back-and-forth process with Bell Helicopter, and finally, they decided to offer me employment at the same time I was finishing my paperwork to become a Permanent Resident of Canada. Funnily enough, it was a process that I had started just by curiosity, when I learned that the Government of Québec had a liaison office in Mexico City. Times just aligned.”

José Miguel Ramírez Olivos alongside Mexican students at the Canadian Space Agency headquarter, located in Montreal.

He enthusiastically reminiscences of his first job, and the fact that he came to relish it still bewilders him. “I never imagined I would come near helicopters. I had said once that I would never get to work with helicopters, because the theory is just so complex, the aerodynamics of a helicopter are incredibly convoluted. I never thought I would love helicopters the way I loved airplanes, but I did. It was a reminder to never say never.”

But despite the startling, wistful affair with whirlybirds, not everything was smooth and effortless as he began his era as a New Canadian. Language became a barrier. “I thought I spoke English and I thought I spoke French, and I realised I didn’t,” acknowledges Ramírez, who, when the Mirabel-based aeronautic giant experienced financial woes due to the uncertainty in the global economic environment, was among the first round of layoffs. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“It led me to rediscover school, to continue studying, which was the way I had gotten all this far.”

Back with the purpose of strengthening his education, he successfully completed a Masters, and then a Ph.D. at McGill University, all with a concentration on Space Systems, where it happened that one of his professors suggested that he applied for a position at the Canadian Space Agency. “I was surprised. It had been a long dream of mine to work for NASA. I had heard of the European Space Agency. But here I learned that there are many countries doing enthralling work in space, Canada among them.”

FROM THE QUARTERS OF THE CANADIAN SPACE AGENCY, located in St. Hubert, a borough located in Longueuil in Montréal’s South Shore, José Miguel Ramírez Olivos explains about his purpose and the importance of his role as a part of Canada’s space exploration arm, where he controls the operation of Canadian satellites, which are situated in orbit primarily to accomplish four critical missions: capturing photographs of the Earth for further research, conducting studies of the ozone layer, scouting and detecting meteorites or other objects that might be on collision course with our planet or with other satellites, including space debris, and also, to keep track of the global maritime routes, with particular emphasis on those that involve Canadian water bodies, such as the neighbouring St. Lawrence River.

“It is important to empower younger generations, to keep the sense of possibility alive. We are a country with a lot of talent that often does not get the recognition and the opportunity that we deserve,” says José Miguel.

Every room within the John H. Chapman Space Centre represents a memory, and every hallway prompts a story, a memorable conversation, a scene of a passage that could have been a mere illusion, but wasn’t. It has been eleven years since José Miguel joined the agency, and he feels as energetic as ever, ready to tackle whatever feat life might present.  “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 also remains active supporting and giving back to his home country of Mexico as the President of Red Global MX – Global Network of Mexican Professionals – an initiative designed to create an active collaboration between Mexican professionals abroad, the country where they reside, and Mexico, as well as constantly speaking to students both in Mexico and Canada, hoping to inspire them to find their passion.

“It is important to empower younger generations, to keep the sense of possibility alive. We are a country with a lot of talent that often does not get the recognition and the opportunity that we deserve,” says José Miguel, who first dreamt of being a pilot, but then, after being discarded on account of poor eyesight – astigmatism – saw his goal of joining the army vanish. “I wanted to join the Aviation School within the Mexican Army, but I couldn’t because I used to wear glasses, and still do. And because my family couldn’t afford to send me to a private aviation school, I relented, but I said, if I can’t become a pilot, at least I will build planes. And I also was very excited about the prospect of earning a professional degree.”

Empowered to walk through this new path he decided to join the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN for its initials in Spanish), a prominent Engineering school in Mexico City where he enrolled in the Aeronautics programme. “I felt that a degree would give me an advantage,” recalls José Miguel, who, when working on school projects, would pay a visit every Thursday to Mexico City International Airport, together with his classmates, where they explored and delved into the processes and instrumentalities of the aircrafts from the world’s leading air carriers.

“I learned that on Thursdays all of them would be there: KLM, Lufthansa, Iberia, Air France. So we would take the bus to the airport and request permission from the airport site managers. Because we were aeronautics students, they were generally receptive. Believe me, it was better than the movies or any other entertainment. We were sitting inside the cabin and learning about the equipment of the biggest aircraft in the world, the 747. It was massive. My peers would look at me as if I was a little kid, but I was like, ‘Do you have an idea of how many years I have dreamed and imagined of being able to sit here?’”

Coincidentally, it was during his years at IPN that he took to the air for the very first time. It was a flight operated by Aeromexico, Mexico’s flag carrier airline, departing from Mexico City International to Tijuana, a city located in the border with the United States, José Miguel’s final destination.

José Miguel Ramírez Olivos teaching students.

“I thought languages were important, and I had cousins in the US, so I opted for a sabbatical year and flew there to learn English. It was the first time I was in an airplane, the first time away from my family, my first time outside of Mexico. It was a challenging but unforgettable moment,” remembers Ramírez, who didn’t let his curiosity wane as he took off in a new chapter of his journey. “When we took off, I asked the stewardess if I could visit the cabin, and to my surprise, she asked the captain and they agreed. It was a three hour flight, and I spent the whole time in the cabin, talking to the crew, asking them questions, they showed me all the instruments and all the processes involved in piloting an aircraft. It was incredible,” says Ramírez Olivos, who expresses that his sense of wonder, of admiration for airplanes is still ever-present. “Today, every time I ride a plane, I enjoy it as the very first time. Looking at the system, getting to know it, take-off time, testing the surface landing systems, I imagine and recreate in my head the dialogue that goes on between the pilots and the control tower before takeoff. It is fascinating.”

Ultimately, the choice of embarking on this trip would be one that would decisively alter the course of his career. “In Mexico I used to write technical publications for Bell Helicopter, and once it happened that one of their representatives from Texas overheard me speaking in English. We engaged in a long conversation, and something in me must have convinced him, because he hinted that they had an open position at their plant in Québec, and implied that it could be for me. That was an initial spark that led me to consider the option of moving to Canada.”

DECADES AFTER THAT FIRST EPIPHANIC ENCOUNTER with the Boeing 727 that would trace the trajectory of his life, José Miguel Ramírez Olivos, Mexican-Canadian with a Mixtec heritage, the six-year-old who built PlayDoh airplanes in kindergarten, the teenager who, after learning mechanics from his father, still fixes his own car, and the one who, driven by a passion for curiosity and his avidity for knowledge has now worked his way to the upper echelons of Canada’s space world, does not feel that his quest is over. When asked about his next steps, he remains enthused, stating that he plans to keep studying and discovering our universe. “More than understanding why am I here, I like to ask where do 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 that we can understand. To comprehend our history and our evolution. How was it that the conditions became possible for you and me to be speaking, right here, right now, after millions and millions of years of life on Earth?”

Javier Ortega-Araiza
Born in Mexico, re-born in Canada, and a global citizen and part-time digital nomad, Javier Ortega-Araiza is a serial entrepreneur who has founded companies in the tourism, education, and financial technology space, always with the intent of building bridges and increasing the social impact engagement of the business community. He is also an engaged community leader serving on the Board of Directors of several not-for-profits in the GTA and abroad and a Visiting Professor in Social Entrepreneurship in Universities in Canada, the United States and Colombia. Javier Ortega-Araiza is a lifelong traveler, writer and documentarist who contributes on business & innovation, politics, travel, sports, and stories of people being people.