Q: There are hundreds and thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but there are only about 100 American astronauts. What made you want to be one of them, and be one of those people who flies in space?
Image to right: STS-117 Mission Specialist Danny Olivas. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Danny Olivas
A: You know, my first recollection of the space program was when I was 7 years old. My parents brought us on a family vacation, and we came here to Houston. As part of the things that we were seeing, including the Astrodome and the Astroworld and all the great things that Houston has to offer, we came through Johnson Space Center. It was a time near the end of the Apollo era and I remember coming through Teague Auditorium which at the time was a museum, and I remember being just awestruck with what human beings had done. It was beyond me to believe that we could go into space. And as we were leaving, I recall my father commenting, actually called me and my sister and my brother over, and he started explaining some, it was on a, it was on a mockup of a rocket engine of some sort – I don’t recall the details of it -- and he started to explain what he used to do in California, when he was a machinist. He used to make rocket parts, and he was explaining what kind of parts he was working on. As he was explaining this to us -- I was 7 years old so I didn’t really understand a whole lot about it -- but I thought to myself, "Wow, look at all those parts on there, and, you know, how many dads are there, and moms, and brothers and sisters … For me being part of space exploration has always been being one of those parts on that rocket engine, having one small integral part. And now today as an astronaut, it’s unfortunate that the public only sees NASA as being, you know, a group of astronauts who go into space and fly the space shuttle -- we happen to be the most public view of NASA --but the reality is that we, NASA, are like that rocket engine: hundreds of thousands of parts, all over the country, everybody having their own contribution. And when that contribution is done right you have the program that you see today, doing phenomenal things, things that human beings where never meant to do; we’re doing. And everyone’s role is extremely critical. You can’t have a good functioning engine without any one given piece. So as I sit here and as I’m an astronaut today it, it’s an honor and a privilege to be given this opportunity. I’m happy to be part of this program, but I tell you right now that this job is no more or no less significant than any other role that’s played within NASA.
And just to bring the circle all the way around, you realize that the room we’re sitting in right now to do this interview is the room that used to be that museum?
Yup, I sure do.
Take me to El Paso, Texas; tell me what that town was like when you grew up there.
The thing that I remember most about El Paso was the view at night. My father purchased this, I don't know if he got it at a garage sale or got it for Christmas one year but it was just an inexpensive telescope. I remember going up on my roof with my father and we’d set the telescope up and we’d look at the moon, and look at the stars. I don’t recall it being an absolutely perfect, non-fuzzy view, but I just remember being awestruck by this -- the fact that you had this, just an enormous amount of space above us. When I went on to work for JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and saw a lot of what Hubble had brought back with the Wide Field Planetary Camera, I still look up today and I realize how much there is out there that we don’t know, and why I’m very proud and, and very happy to be working in this industry where maybe we’re taking baby steps but at least we’re moving in the right direction. El Paso, to me is a wonderful town, wonderful people. I’m very happy to be from there, very happy that I grew up there, and I still have a lot of family that live there, have a lot of friends that live there, and you know I got my education there, and you know, got my, got my start in college there, so it’s a lot of fond memories.
Give us a thumbnail sketch of your education and, and your professional background and the, the course of your professional life that led you to becoming an astronaut.
Well, when I first started, when I first kind of made the career decision that I wanted to become an astronaut, I think, and I always had a desire to do so in high school, and in college, when I was at the University of Texas at El Paso, was my first real strong push. I put in an application in 1988 to try, one, to become an astronaut, and two, just to try to get a job at, at NASA. I was graduating in, in ’89 and at the time NASA was on a hiring freeze and so, as I viewed my various job opportunities there was a job opportunity with Dow Chemical down in Freeport, Texas, and I looked at its proximity to Houston and I said, well, you know, if I go to Dow Chemical I can at least keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on within JSC and if an opportunity opens up I can start working for the space program. And as the years progressed I went on to get my master’s of science in mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, and about that time I made a decision to quit Dow and go to school full-time. I was offered a Ph.D. position at Rice, and so I went to go to school for a couple of years at Rice University and finished up my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science. As I was getting out again, every year I was applying to the astronaut program, trying to get into NASA, looking for opportunities and what really presented themselves. But when I got out of Rice an opportunity made itself available through Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. I applied for the position and received it, and started working out there as a senior research scientist and eventually was promoted into the technical management type of position as a program manager, and worked there for a couple of years, again continuing to keep my application current. In 1997, nine years after I put in my first application, I received a call to come in for an interview. So I think the moral of the story there is that persistence pays off.
You getting more excited about your first spaceflight as it gets closer and closer?
Yeah. You know, when STS-116 launched, the day that they made it to orbit nice and safe, we became prime crew for the next flight. I think it, it still hasn’t really sunk in. We have a lot of work in front of us, we have a lot of things we need to be doing, a lot of things we need to be focused on, and luckily there’s so much on our plate that maybe we don’t have a whole lot of time to sit back and think about it. I mean, I’m excited about the opportunity but as far as has it changed me right now and in my thought processing and training -- I don’t think that it has. We’ve got an absolutely fantastic crew; I couldn’t ask to have a better set of crewmates, and I’m just doing the best I can to try and keep up with them.
Got a good story about how you were told you’d been selected for the flight crew?
Oh, yeah. We’d heard that, that there was some astronaut announcement, or crew announcements coming around and at the time I thought that maybe my name was going to be on the list. But I hadn’t gotten a call from “the corner office,” which is where you hear the word that you’ve been assigned to a crew. Well, when the notification came out saying that they were going to announce the crew and I hadn’t gotten that call I said, well, I must not be on the crew. I said, well, I’m happy for everybody else who got selected for the new mission. So I went to the big meeting where the chief of the Astronaut Office, who was Kent Rominger at the time, stood up and said, "We’re here to announce a few new crew additions, some new missions." First off he talked about taking Rick Mastracchio, who was originally assigned to STS-117, and that he’d been pulled into 118 as the, as kind of the lead EVA person for 118, and then he said that, and we’ve put Danny Olivas in his slot, and since I hadn’t heard, I remember looking at, at Kent and I said, "You got to be kidding me." My mouth, my jaw just dropped, and he said, "C.J." [Rick Sturckow], who’s my commander, "didn’t you tell him?" C.J. said, "Well, I just hadn’t had time. I couldn’t find him." I just looked at both of them, I said, "You guys have got to be kidding me," ’cause I was in a complete state of disbelief. So, it was pretty much a surprise for me.
This part of the astronaut job -- the “flying in space” part, not the interview part -- has shown that it can be dangerous. What is it that you feel we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth the risk that you’re willing to take?
I think because I had the luxury of working at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and seeing how much effort was being placed in the robotic missions, and with those robotic missions you came back with a wealth of information. But I had this conversation with John Young one time -- actually it was during the interview week. We were at a restaurant and I was sitting next to him. I was thinking to myself, "Oh, we just finished landing Mars Pathfinder, Sojourner, on Mars, and we’d gotten a bunch of great pictures. I said "Hey John, what do you think about Pathfinder? Pretty good for a little robot, huh?" And he looked at me and said, "Well, it took that robot a month to figure out what it would have taken an astronaut 30 minutes to figure out." And I realized he’s right: Robots will never replace human beings, regardless of how sophisticated the instrumentation. I realized that human beings will never able to be fitted with alpha proton, you know, analyzers or, energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy systems or even infrared eyes, but what a human being provides the whole space experience is the ability to make a decision, the ability to process information real time, and the ability to ask the questions that the engineers and the scientists would ask. But we can ask them right then and there, and we can respond to contingencies: If our batteries break, well, we can fix them. If things don’t work just right, we can fix them. We will find a way to do it, because that’s what human beings do. Robots do a tremendous job and they’re great for going into hazardous places, but they also have limitations.
You’re Mission Specialist 3 on shuttle mission STS-117. Danny, give me a summary of the goals of assembly mission 13A, and what your jobs are on this flight.
Well, 117 is going to be bringing up two large truss segments which are already connected. It’s the S3/S4 Truss segment, and on the end of the S4 Truss segment we have two sets of solar arrays which, ultimately, once when we connect to the space station, we’ll be in charge of deploying so that we can start to generate more electrical power for the International Space Station. My personal role is that I’ll be participating in two of three EVAs, which will be the spacewalks, and in particular EVA 1 and EVA 3.
Let’s talk about the hardware first, the S3/S4 Truss. Describe for us a little bit more of what that is, what it will do, and why it’s important to add that to the space station.
The S3/S4 Truss segment, or the truss segments themselves, represent essentially the structural backbone of the International Space Station on which we place the solar arrays. Solar arrays are necessary to generate electrical power from the sun, and in turn that electrical power is fed into the International Space Station which keeps all the modules, basically, in a, in a habitable condition, provides the electrical power, if you will -- the power company for the International Space Station. S3/S4 is going to, if you think about it from a, a left/right standpoint if you’re looking from the Lab forward on the vehicle it’ll be on the right-hand side, and it’ll be the two outboard-most truss segments which we’ll be adding. We’ll be connecting them to a segment called S1.
It generates more power and we want more power because more is better, or…
Well, we’re entering a phase at the International Space Station where we’re getting ready to add modules, and the power requirements are necessary to be able to provide sufficient power for cooling capability and environmental control systems for those extra modules. The reason this is important is because those modules are not only those of the United States but also of our international partners: the European Space Agency will be launching Columbus in the near future. The Japanese, JAXA, will be launching the Japanese experimental module and the pressurized modules.
An almost identical component for the International Space Station was delivered two shuttle missions ago on the far port side of the truss; what were, what were the lessons that you learned during the STS-115 mission that you were able to incorporate into your plans?
Actually, as things worked out, this is very beneficial because STS-115, as you mentioned, flew and installed the mirror image for our S3/S4 segment, and as a result of that mission there were a number of things, small things, minor things, in the design that we learned. As we install S3/S4 we’ll be able to modify both our procedures and in some cases we’ve actually designed new hardware to be able to compensate for some of these, these design issues. We’re going to be able to install S3/S4 even more flawlessly than the way that the P3/P4 went up, which was by the way an absolutely awesome mission.
Let’s talk about the delivery of the hardware, and this gets started with robot arm operations that begin almost immediately after shuttle docking to the International Space Station. Describe some of those first steps and what parts you’re going to play during those operations.
Image to left: STS-117 Mission Specialist Danny Olivas particiaptes in a spacewalk training session at JSC's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas. Image credit: NASA
We, all the Mission Specialists on STS-117, we’re all robotically trained, and we all participate in robotics activities. The very first activity will be for the shuttle robotic arm to pull the truss segment, S3/S4, out of the payload bay. SSRMS, which is the space station arm, will grapple that big truss segment and essentially do the final berthing to the International Space Station. They’ll be responsible for pulling it up into the right orientation, taking, if you will, the handoff from the robotic arm from space shuttle, and get it into, basically, the final docking position on the right side of the vehicle.
What you’ve described actually takes place over a couple of different days, Flight Days 3 and 4. At the end of Flight Day 3 and the beginning of Flight Day 4 you’re going to be involved in some other but related activities.
On Flight Day 4 we’re, we’re basically going to be getting ready to do our first spacewalk. We’re going to be listening over the loops and as our robotics operators inside the vehicles are positioning the S3/S4 segment in its proper capture position, once we hear that we have three of four good captures at that point we’re going to egress and get ready to do our EVA -- egress basically being coming out of the space station and getting ready to get to work.
Up to that point you and Jim Reilly will be working to get your hardware ready and you’ve also got the campout in the airlock that night.
That’s right. Working in space is quite a bit more challenging than it is on Earth. You can’t just run to your toolbox and get what you need if you forgot something, or run down to the hardware store and get it, so there’s a lot of preparation that goes ahead of time. In addition, we operate our spacesuits at 4.3 pounds per square inch. We live in 14.7, so in order for us to be able to operate at that lower pressure we need to get our bodies physiologically ready to be able to do that. You can kind of think of it as basically doing like a scuba dive -- a little bit in reverse but that’s a good way to think about it. You have to condition your body so that you have enough oxygen in your system so that when you go through re-pressurization, that you don’t undergo things like the bends, or decompression sickness.
OK, let’s talk about the, the first spacewalk. You and Jim Reilly go out the door on Quest. Take us out there with you and, and describe the tasks that you’ve got in this six-plus-hours outside.
It’s, it’s a real challenging EVA, we have a number of things we, we plan on completing during that EVA; Jim Reilly will be the first one out, he’ll open the hatch, and after I hand him some equipment to temporarily stow outside the, the airlock he’ll take one of those bags of equipment and then head out to the S3/S4 segment. During that time I’ll basically be getting myself out of the airlock, and when I hear from Jim Reilly that he’s properly tethered, my safety tether and configured properly, at that point I’ll go and follow him out there. Now the way it works out in our EVA is that Jim Reilly kind of has all the real estate on the front side of the truss segment, and I have all the real estate on the back side of the truss segment. While one of the first things that happens after the installation has occurred we have to basically start putting keep alive power to all the subsystems on S3/S4. So while Jim Reilly takes care of that my primary responsibility will be to start to get the solar array blanket boxes in from their stowed configuration, get them ready for the deployed configuration. We have a variety of restraints on those boxes that we’ll have to pop off and get them ready. I’ll do that for both the front side and the back side, the 1A and the 3A side. After that’s complete my next major task is to go down and reconfigure the photovoltaic radiator, which is just a giant radiator that radiates the heat being generated by the electrical power system on the S4 segment out to space. My job is to go down there on the bottom side of the truss, the nadir side of the truss. A variety of cinches and winches keep it in the compressed configuration. My job is to get those fully deployed, get them opened up, and get it configured so that it can be commanded into the deployed configuration. It won’t be deployed immediately after I’m doing that. While that’s happening, and I’m doing that kind of work Jim Reilly will be inside and he will be in the area around the large alpha joint. He’ll be configuring one of the Drive Lock Assemblies, which basically provide the ability to drive that giant rotating ring and allow the, the solar rays to pitch around a large alpha joint. When he’s complete with that and I’m complete with my PVR task, both of us will head on out to our respective solar arrays and essentially do the deploying on them. We’ll take the mast canisters out and pull them into the deployed configuration, and then we’ll crawl out on the ends of each one of those masts and then deploy the blanket boxes, pull them all the way out and put them in the proper configuration so that on the subsequent day we’ll be allowed to command those solar array blankets into the fully deployed configuration. And, provided we have enough time, the next thing for us to do is once we’ve got the solar array blankets in the pre-deployed configuration, we’ll be coming inboard again to the large alpha joint -- there’s a number of, of locks and covers and bolts that need to be undone -- and so we’ll get a head start on that for the subsequent EVA, which will be EVA 2. We’ll get done with as much as we can, clean up our work site, and head on back to the airlock and, and come inside and get, get, get a cup of coffee.
It sounds like you spend a lot of time way out on the end of this truss. An amazing view, in every direction.
Absolutely, and you know, it’s one of the things that, that during the training I’ve been thinking a lot about is that the, the view out there is going to be absolutely awesome, potentially even intimidating to some extent. I think if you don’t find it intimidating you’re liable to get careless, and so, you have a healthy respect for the environment that you work in, and recognize that you are on the tip of this very large structure. I’m very much looking forward not only to turning around and looking at Earth, both, in daylight as well as the night, but also turning around and looking into space, because I can imagine out there, without, really, the only thing separating between you and the rest of the universe is, you know, a thin visor, I think it’s going to be a pretty neat experience.
The spacewalk that we’ve been talking about is going to be the first of your career. Have you gotten advice from your colleagues about what it’s like to fly in space in your own little personal spacecraft?
Absolutely. I don’t think you can ever get too much advice. There’s a tremendous amount of experience within the Office and because the Astronaut Office is like a family -- everyone looks out for one another and everyone is willing to share from their experiences, both good experiences as well as bad experiences. Mistakes that other people have made, they don’t wanna see you make. And so they’re very willing to share with you things that they would have done better. That’s, that’s one of the great things about working in this Office is that you have a tremendous amount of support. There are numerous mentors within the Office that are very willing to take someone like myself who’s never flown in space before and give us all the lessons learned, things that they wish they knew before they took their first spacewalk. I’m sure when I get done with mine I’ll have a lot experiences that I’d be willing to share with rookie flyers.
The day after that first EVA is the day that the new solar wings are deployed. Tell me about how that’s done and what you guys inside are going to be looking out for it to make sure that that all goes properly.
This is going to be a very busy and challenging day deploying the solar arrays. There was a coating which placed on some of the solar array panels which allowed them to stick together. For the most part there’s not a need to have a large structural component within the solar array itself. While it’s sufficient, it still can’t drive a lot of force, and so the way that the solar array begins to deploy has to be done so that there’s a minimal amount of force, and things that we’re going to be watching for is in the event that something should start to bind up, something gets snagged or something sticks a little bit more than it should, we’ll be inside monitoring the entire deploying process. Everyone on our crew has a job to do during that deploy process to make sure that it goes smoothly. If anybody sees anything that looks a little bit out of whack, we’ll hit the abort button, we’ll stop right there, and we’ll sort it out and figure out where to go from there.
But the plan for the second spacewalk, and the third one, got some really late changes because of issues with folding panels and sticking guide wires on the retraction of one of the P6 Truss solar array wings on the last flight. You’ve got retraction of the other solar array wing on this flight, so tell me, what is the new plan, and how is it going to impact the remaining spacewalks?
Well, our original plan was to retract the other end of the solar array which is on P6, which is basically on top of the space station. STS-116 encountered some problems with the retraction of the side that they were responsible for. There were some cables which became frayed and hung up on the, the solar array wing as it was folding in. The array didn’t fold properly, and so that crew developed, real time, a set of wonderful techniques in order to be able to get that retraction done. They brought all their lessons learned down to us, and for the STS-117 crew provided us with some guidance on what we need to do in order to be able to retract the other side should we encounter the same problems. EVA 2 is going to start off by implementing some of those techniques to try and get that solar array in. Now, obviously, the ground is going to try and do as much as they can without having EVA influence on it, but if it does get stuck our EVA 2 team, which is Pat Forrester and Steve Swanson, are well trained and they’re going to go in there and implement those techniques and try and get as much of that solar array retracted as possible. In addition to doing that, they have still all the responsibilities that they had from the original EVA 2, which is basically to prepare the solar array alpha rotary joint, basically free the locks from there in order to get it into a configuration so that it can actually rotate and the arrays can follow the sun.
Removing those, those locks and restraints is something that takes up pretty much the whole second spacewalk otherwise, right?
That’s right. There’s, there are a number of locks that are on there. It’s a very tedious and difficult task and the team is they’ve been working on it diligently over the past, you know, year or so in training, and if we’re unable to get those launches, those launch locks removed and the restraints removed the, the new set of solar arrays that we’ll put up there will be kind of in a, in a stuck state until a subsequent crew can go up there and finish removing them. But there is sufficient time; they’ve done sufficient planning, developed even new tools to help them with that task. So there were some problems that were encountered on 115 and they’ve come down and, and developed some new techniques and new, new hardware to help them with that task.
Well, that brings us up to EVA 3, and we noted that you and Jim Reilly may be called upon to help with the solar array wing retraction for EVA 3. But what else is there that’s on the agenda for your second spacewalk, and which one of those tasks are going to get the top priority if the SAW retraction operation cuts into your time?
Well, the retraction of the solar array wing 2 Bravo is going to be the, the highest priority that we have and so, as I had said before, we’re trying to get as we can much done through ground commanding and IV commanding of that solar array system. If we can’t get it retracted far enough, the plan for EVA 3, because it is our highest priority, is to go out there and basically assist, in the same way that the 116 crew did, with that retraction. Assuming it takes us a few hours to get it completed, because of all the things that we learned on the previous EVAs then we have a series of other tasks which are of high priority for the space station including installation of an H2 vent system which will allow us to, to generate our own oxygen on the Lab. In addition, we have some instrumentation which will be placed on the outside of the space station. So there’s a number of different tasks that are there, but EVA 3 is a very dynamic EVA right now and, to be quite honest with you, we’re probably not going to have the final script until the night before.
The International Space Station is the biggest thing that people have ever built in space, at least so far. How do you feel about getting to play this kind of a role in this kind of a job?
The reason I came to NASA, I think, was less to become an astronaut and more to become part of space exploration. I share the same dreams, goals, and desires as many others of our NASA family. Just to be part of this, whether I’m on the ground or in space, I feel like I’m making a contribution to something that means a lot to me personally, and when you recognize what we do as human beings, any role that you play, whether it’s on orbit stringing up a cable or on the ground designing the next widget to fix an issue that you didn’t expect, they’re all very important roles and they all have such a tremendous impact on the success of, of NASA’s mission. It just feels good to continue to be a part of that process.
Of course the Vision for Space Exploration sees way beyond this space station that we’re building right now. What is your philosophy, Danny, about the future of human exploration of space?
Well, human exploration of space is less a goal as much as it is a journey. We have, we embarked on this, back in the early ’60s and we have made tremendous progress. We’ve learned a lot, we’ve had a lot of success. We’ve had a few failures, and we’ve learned from our failures. And so long as we try not to consider human exploration of space as some finite destination, but more of the process of human beings expanding their own horizons, I think the goals and the missions, and the mission of NASA, and the reason why NASA was formed, will be preserved. When you talk to the engineers and you talk to the scientists and you talk to the people who work here at NASA, you recognize you’re talking to people who are on a journey. They’re not chasing a goal; this is all part of a process.