Preflight Interview: Danny Olivas, Mission Specialist
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Astronaut John "Danny" Olivas, STS-128 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits the start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS 128 interview with Danny Olivas, mission specialist on the flight. Danny, tell us about hometown. Where’s your hometown, and tell us what it was like growing up there.

My hometown’s El Paso, Texas. I grew up there, spent most of my life there as a young boy. I was originally born out in North Hollywood, California, but moved to El Paso back, really back home. That’s where my family’s from. Grew up there, I went to grade school, middle school, high school there, went to University of Texas-El Paso. That’s where I met my wife and that’s where we kind of got everything started. It was a wonderful place to grow up.

What kinds of things interested you back in your youth? What did you like to do?

Well, you know, when I was a kid I was very mechanically inclined. I liked to tear things apart and put things back together. My father was also, he was very much a shade tree mechanic, very talented man and was never afraid to tackle any kind of mechanical projects and so, you know, he always involved me in a number of his projects around the house and that’s where I kind of got a flavor of, you know, what working with machines was like and it was from that point on that I really, that’s what I really enjoyed doing was working with my hands and working with machines.

How would you say that that place influenced who you’ve become?

Well, for a variety of reasons. One, you know, I met my wife there and she’s been a strong influence in my life, certainly in my adult career. It’s been a huge motivator for me to accomplish greater things and if it wasn’t for her I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today. Growing up as a kid, my father used to take us on top of the roof at night and El Paso’s, it’s fairly remote in the high desert and at night we would use a cheap fifteen, ten, fifteen dollar telescope that he bought and we would look at the stars, look at the moon and I remember doing that as a kid and that really, I think, solidified my fascination with space and, you know, seeing the moon and seeing the stars and just wondering about what’s out there.

Do you recall at what point in your life that you got the notion in your head that, you know, ‘I’d like to try to be an astronaut someday’?

Well, it was actually, I think there were two pivotal points. One was when I was a kid growing up, about seven years old, my parents came to Houston on a family vacation, brought all the kids along and we were here at Johnson Space Center looking through all the, at the time the museum was actually here within Johnson Space Center. And I remember walking through all the models, and this was right near the end, tail end of the Apollo era and so I was fascinated by all the hardware and the technology that was there and as I started, as we started to leave at the end of the day, my father called us over to basically, he was in front of a rocket mockup, a rocket engine mockup, and he then began to explain some of the parts that he used to build for rocket engines. At the time when he was in Los Angeles he worked for a machine shop and so he started talking about the parts that he built. Then I remember being struck by the fact that, you know, all of these things that I just saw in the museum, you know, were, my dad had a role in, had some part in and as I looked at this engine and saw all these little parts and pieces there and, it made me realize that the space program was made up of a bunch of dads and moms who have a contribution to the program. And as I grew older, you know, I think everybody wants to, I think kids grow up wanting to be astronauts or football players or movie stars or what have you and, for me, it was wanting to be an astronaut. And it really wasn’t until I became, I went through school and again through the encouragement of my wife really kind of focused on my goal of becoming an astronaut and through a lot of, you know, hard work and sacrifice that we both made along the way that we really made this a reality.

And so you decided to go to UTEP and to study what?

I studied mechanical engineering.

So and that, the basis for that was basically because you were interested in, you were good with your hands and taking stuff apart and…

And it wasn’t intuitive to me. When I first got in to UTEP I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. At the time I was very, I was kind of artistically inclined. I liked to draw, freehand draw and that’s, I really thought I was going to go into commercial art and, as, and I started taking classes, I took a, it was a physics class, a beginning physics class when we studied mechanisms and machines and it was then that things kind of dawned on me that the things that I saw that my father worked on when I was a kid all of a sudden took on a completely different meaning and a new meaning. I saw it no longer as a, you know, mechanisms and cams and wheels and pulleys but as forces and arrows and vectors and numbers and it was just a really, it was an ‘aha moment’ for me because I realized that that’s really what I wanted to do. I felt very connected to the world that I grew up knowing, working with my hands. Now I saw it in a completely different way. I saw it with my mind and that was, it was then that I realized I wanted to become a mechanical engineer.

Okay, so then from there, from Texas-El Paso, take us through the journey from there through your, what you did professionally before coming to NASA.

Okay. Well, after graduating from UTEP my girlfriend at the time, and then we decided to get married and I came to work here in the Houston area. Marie and I moved here in ’89 and I worked for Dow Chemical near Freeport, Texas, and at the time I was really trying to get into NASA but NASA was in a hiring freeze and so we, our strategy was that, ‘Well, if we stay in the Houston area, then at least we’ll have, we can kind of keep our fingers on the pulse of what’s going on with the space industry.’ And had a great experience at Dow Chemical. While I was there both of us actually decided to go back to University of Houston to get our Master’s Degree. My wife got it in education. I got it in engineering and when we graduated from University of Houston, again through the encouragement of my wife, I went on to apply at Rice and to the Ph.D. program, got my Ph.D. from Rice in Material Science this time and from there, upon graduation, we moved out to Los Angeles, had a couple kids along the way and I worked for a Jet Propulsion Laboratory and, while I was there, that’s when I finally, after about ten years worth of applying to the astronaut program, finally had my application reviewed and was brought in for an interview and, you know, got the job.

What was that moment like, that realization that after all this hard work and all the persistence that finally, ‘I’m getting the foot in the door and heading down the path that I’ve been wanting to go down’?

I think it was obviously, it’s a very satisfying moment. You really feel like you’ve accomplished what you set out to accomplish but by the same token it, I don’t think it was ever really part of our, you know, end all, be it all, this is what we have to, have to do because, to be quite honest with you, to become an astronaut you really got to be kind of lucky, too, and we’re definitely very lucky in that and very fortunate in that respect. We had done a lot in our lives up until that point and we could look back on our lives and say, “You know, look at all the things we’ve accomplished so far” and we were very happy with where we were at and, so this was just the, really the icing on the cake.

You’ve made, this is your second spaceflight.

That’s correct.

Tell us what it was like when you were picked to make your first space flight to actually go up and be amongst the stars, so to speak.

My actual, the first time I heard that I was assigned to STS-117 was actually the same time everyone else heard that I was assigned STS-117. It was a bit of a miscommunication and I was not informed that I had been assigned to the mission so I was sitting in the room with all the astronauts when they were making the crew announcements and when they announced my name to serve on STS-117, I was more surprised than anybody else. I didn’t believe it at first. I remember saying, “You got to be kidding me” multiple times only because, you know, after having been in the program for almost nine years at the time you, as a sense of, I mean, it’s almost like you’re dreaming, didn’t seem like it was ever going to happen or it was ever going to be real. But, sure enough, it was and it did and we had a very successful mission and I’m just very honored to have the privilege to do it again.

Talk a little bit if you would about the role of education in your success and for anybody with anything that they’re setting out to do. How big of a factor has it been for you?

Oh, to me it’s been the key and if it wasn’t for education, and it’s not so much that, you know, once you graduate that all of a sudden these opportunities lay at your feet. I think what education does is it gives you the basis from which to make smart educated decisions about the opportunities as they come available, for you to be able to forge your path using that basis and it’s not going to give you the answers but it’s going to help you as you evaluate things that are going on around you, opportunities that may come up and gives you the ability to be able to balance that against what your own passions and desires are. And ultimately, for myself, in the area of mechanical engineering, it allowed me to really focus on the things that I found just really fascinating, the machines, the mechanisms, the materials that they’re made out of and that’s why I chose the career that I did. If it had not been for that education, I never would have had the broad spectrum of thermal dynamics and, you know, mechanics and materials and mechanisms, dynamics, statics, never would have seen it all. Now I didn’t choose it all but I found an area that I really liked and I really appreciated and from that point on that defined my life.

Let’s go back to your spaceflight experience. What are some of the moments that you’ll never forget about that first spaceflight?

Really starting from about the time that the shuttle main engines started until wheel stop, and kind of like everything in between. It was a pretty awesome experience and it’s hard to, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about some aspect of the flight and it’s neat because sometimes something’ll happen in my life that’ll make me remember something, some very almost inconsequential thing that happened during the flight and I’ll remember it and I’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I remember, you know, this situation happening on the flight” and it’ll take me back to that time and so it’s a very unique experience and certainly very much a privilege to be given the opportunity.

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Astronaut John "Danny" Olivas, STS-128 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, participates in a training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Talk a little bit if you would about some of your crewmates. This is your second time also on the same flight with your commander and also Pat Forrester. What kind of bond have you guys created in that first flight and how is that going to help you on this flight here?

Well, you know, instantly on STS-117, I gained a tremendous amount of respect for C.J. Sturckow and Pat Forrester and I’m very fortunate in being able to have the opportunity to fly with them again. However, what I will say is that it’s, whenever you’re assigned to a flight it’s almost like you have a family and, even though we’ve had experiences in past I think, from that, we have an understanding of what our history is but this flight, STS-128, is in and of itself very, very unique and uniquely different from STS-117 and so our other crewmates, you know, Christer Fuglesang and Nicole Stott, Jose Hernandez, Kevin Ford, I mean, we all now form a unique crew and it, even those, those experiences we did, I did have with Pat and with C.J., now we’re having brand new experiences with the STS-128 crew.

There are thousands of people that work behind the scenes to ensure the success and safety of this and every mission. When you get a chance to talk to those people during your travels for training at different centers, what’s it like to meet those people and to talk with them?

Well, as I’ve said a couple of times during this interview to fly in space is a unique privilege. Nobody really deserves to fly in space. We’re very fortunate to be given the opportunity because there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people across our country who not only are designing the experiments that are going up on space station or hardware that’s being flown on STS-128, but that go to building the individual pieces and components that go on the shuttle or on the solid rocket boosters or on the main engines’ external fuel tank. And I go back to remembering what it was like the day that I actually saw that rocket engine and my dad was talking about the parts that he built and it made me truly appreciate that this is an agency not of, made up of, you know, astronauts that fly into space. It’s made up of engineers and scientists and researchers and individuals who, hundreds of thousands of them across our country, who work hard day in and day out to further space exploration and so I view them as a team member, no more no less important than myself and together we do the things that we do and it’s pretty impressive what we can do as human beings when we all put our minds to it.

Tell us about the key objectives of this mission, STS-128.

STS-128, well, our primary objectives, we are taking Nicole Stott, exchanging a crew member on the International Space Station. Tim Kopra’s going to be coming home with us. This is an important mission because we’re basically gearing up for having six person on orbit, you know, from here on out and we’re taking up a multipurpose logistics module also known as an MPLM and we got about 6.7 metric tons worth of gear and hardware that we’re taking up with us in that MPLM and in addition to replacing some equipment on orbit and bringing some back home with us, we also have a few EVAs, we have three EVAs planned, two of which are almost dedicated entirely to changing out an ammonia tank. The ammonia tank is what we use to help reject the heat from all the electronics boxes inside space station, reject that heat into space through a heat exchanger. And we’re also getting ready for subsequent missions including the launch of the Node 3 by laying out some power cables. We’re also going to be bringing home some, some payload experiments that have been on orbit for awhile, the EuTEF and the MISSE experiments, so it’s going to be a full flight.

This MPLM named Leonardo for some, for people who may not be familiar with what it is, can you just kind of give us a description of it, how it looks and how it’s shaped and what not?

Leonardo is a, it’s a cylindric, a cylindrical module. It looks very similar to one of the other modules that we’ve taken up like the node of the lab. It’s cylindrical. It has a Common Berthing Mechanism in between which allows us to be able to pack it on the ground and we zip it up so it’s kind of like a big suitcase and it’s all filled with gear and equipment and food and things that we’re going to take up to space station. Then using the robotic arm on the space station, we’ll pull that out of the payload bay and we’ll berth that to space station and then open up the hatch and then that’s where we perform the swap out. We’ll basically take gear out of the MPLM into space station and then gear that’s basically staged and ready to come home from ISS, load that back up into the MPLM, undock it and put it in the payload bay and then we bring it back home with us.

All the items are obviously important that you’re going to be bringing but are there some that are really key to maintaining that six-person crew? I mean, now that it’s been increased it’s going to be more of certain things needed. Are there key items that are in the MPLM that are going to be…

Well, probably one of the big things we’re bringing up is we’re bringing up a bunch of food. That’s going to be really important for the crew. They’re going to get hungry. We’re also bringing up gear that’ll help keep the astronauts in good physical condition while they’re up there. We’re bringing up exercise gear. We’re also bringing up science experiments. We’re bringing up healthcare, health assessment items and things of that sort.

Also on this flight you’re going to, at some point, replace what’s called a Rate Gyro Assembly, an RGA. Tell us about what that is and what it does.

Well, I mean, if you think about it from the kids’ toys, a gyroscope and you have this little gyroscope that you spin up and as you move it you can feel the forces on them, imparted on you as you move from side to side. Well, what a Rate Gyro Assembly basically does is it uses a gyroscope to determine not so much what the attitude of the space station is but how much that attitude is changing over time and so the two that are on orbit right now, one is in degraded condition so we’re going to pull that one out and swap it out and there’s a later date we’re going to swap out the other one because they’ve basically reached the end of their life.

Sometime after launching and making it to orbit, you’ll do a limited inspection on Flight Day 2. Then on Flight Day 3 you’ll have space station in your sights if everything goes well. Tell me what you’ll be doing during the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight.

During rendezvous and docking it’s a very busy time. All the crew members are basically up on the flight deck. Everybody has a role to play. My role basically is to, I’ll be photo documenting the space station as we’re approaching, making sure that we’re taking as many pictures as we possibly can of space station. The reason this is important is ‘cause we can compare that to previous flights and see if we’ve had any degradation in key elements over time and they’ve actually been able to find stuff that had degraded because of this survey that we do. In addition to doing that, I’ll be helping out Jose Hernandez who is our mission specialist, the rendezvous mission specialist, in using the handheld laser and backing him up in that. We also have a bunch of computer models that we use, computer programs that we use to help us with flying the actually docking. My role basically is to, I’m going to have a kind of bigger picture as to, as far as what’s going on and in the event that someone needs help in that particular area, I’ll be ready to jump in there and help them out.

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Astronaut John "Danny" Olivas, STS-128 mission specialist, participates in an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit fit check in the Space Station Airlock Test Article (SSATA) in the Crew Systems Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

There are three EVAs as you mentioned on this flight. On EVA 1, Nicole Stott will be outside with you. There’s a rationale for her doing this EVA as a new station crew member and a benefit. Talk a little bit about that.

Absolutely, you know, one of the, I guess, the things that make space station unique from space shuttle is that space station’s in orbit twenty-four/seven. Shuttle gets to come back home which means that if we have a problem on the space shuttle, if we can live with it we can get it to the ground and we can repair it on the ground. Space station doesn’t have that option which means that the only thing really that you can do is do an EVA. It’s important for the ISS crew members to have EVA skills basically when they’re there during the stage-ops. Stage basically means in between each one of the shuttle flights. For Nicole this is going to be important. It’s going to be important for the entire crew to have an experienced crew member on the flight during the stage time frame that in the event that something were to go bad and they need to replace some orbital replacement unit or some other aspect that needs to be worked on that they’ll have some experience going out the door and that’s basically what we’re doing with Nicole. Nicole’s going to be getting that experience right from the get go. Once she has that under her belt, she’ll focus on transitioning from the space shuttle crew over to space station crew for the duration of our mission at least.

Tell us what work sites you and Nicole will visit on EVA 1 and tell us what you’ll be doing during that spacewalk.

The first work site we’re going to go to is the Port 1 truss area which is along the truss long backbone of the space station. On there is the Ammonia Tank Assembly, the ATA and we will be essentially disconnecting that ATA and removing it from the truss segment and then handing it off to the robotic arm. After we’ve done with that particular task, we’ll head out to Columbus to where there’s a few exposed payloads which we will retrieve and put in the payload bay. One’s a large payload. It’s call EuTEF, European Technology Exposed Facility. It’s a large pallet basically with a bunch of science experiments on there and we’ll take that entire pallet and put that pallet inside the payload bay and then there’s some smaller payloads which are material science experiments, basically suitcase style boxes, MISSE boxes, two of those. We’ll retrieve those and take those back to the payload bay, put those on the sidewall carriers of the payload bay and that’s pretty much it and then we’ll head back to the airlock.

Let’s move on to EVA 2, more work on the ATAs, the Ammonia Tank Assemblies. Tell us about what’s going to happen on EVA 2.

Well, EVA 2 is a very, very busy day because we’ll be removing the new Ammonia Tank Assembly from the payload bay, installing it on to the P1 region and then take the old ATA off of the robotic arm and then fly that back to the payload bay and install it in the payload bay. It doesn’t sound like, that’s all we’re doing dealing with this ATA, doesn’t sound like a whole lot of work but it’s a tremendous amount of work to try and get it all done in one EVA. So that’s going to be our primary job.

I failed to mention Christer Fuglesang is going to be out there with you on that EVA.

Right, right. Christer’s there with us.

At some point on one or, I forget if it’s both of those EVAs, there’s, the arm, you could say that it’s going to have its hands full. There’s going to be a lot of things it’s going to have to hold on to. Tell us about that.

Well, the way we have this EVA orchestrated, first of all, let me tell you that the Ammonia Tank Assembly is the largest orbital replacement unit that’s been handled by an EVA crew member. It weighs about, let’s see, at Kennedy Space Center I saw them actually weigh it. It was eighteen hundred and thirty-six pounds. That’s a lot of mass and so not only does the robotic arm have to handle this large payload. We’ll have one attached to the robotic arm but then we’re also going to put an EVA crew member on that same robotic arm holding the new Ammonia Tank Assembly. So it’s going to be a handful not only for the robotic arm but, you know, Christer Fuglesang is going to be doing a lot of working out in the gym to be able to wrestle with that eighteen hundred pound mass and he’ll be the one who’s responsible for making sure that that thing stays where it’s supposed to go and that it’s well behaved.

Then on EVA 3 you and Christer are back outside again. Tell us about the jobs you’ll be doing on that spacewalk.

We have several smaller tasks that we need to get accomplished, equally important. The first one is a very important task. We’re going to be laying down the power cables which will be used by STS-130, I believe, STS-130, when they bring up Node 3. These power cables, we’re going to be attached one end to the S0 truss area. There’s a patch panel, take some electrical lines, plug them in and it’s two separate channels and we’ll then string up those cabling on space station outside to basically the point where they’re going to attach to Node 3 once it gets there. Once we’re completed with that task, then we’ll be replacing a couple of, I’m sorry, we’re going to be installing two brand new GPS antennas. Christer’s going to be doing that. He’ll also be changing out an RPCM which is basically like a switch on orbit that needs to be swapped out and in order for us to replace the switch, we’re going to have to essentially bring down half of space station so it’s a pretty important task. In addition to doing that, he and I will work on replacing the Rate Gyro Assembly and let’s see what else we have going on that EVA. And then there’s a few extra smaller tasks such as removing some hardware outside, tucking cables, getting them out of the way, getting, in preparation for STS-130 coming up to deliver Node 3.

STS-128 isn’t officially an assembly flight but still the work that you’re doing, you’re doing some electrical work. You’re, you’re doing some home improvement. It can be considered still an assembly flight, I guess.

What I would say is that even though we’re maybe not bringing up a large module to attach to space station it’s still part of a critical path. Right now we’re marching towards the end of the space shuttle program by 2010-ish and we have very few flights left and what that means is that every mission is really focused on trying to accomplish the tasks that it has in its hands like for us right now it’s the ATA and all the other mission, or the mission objectives that we talked about earlier. Not accomplishing those would put pressure on subsequent missions to be able to fit those within their timelines. And by the same token, you know, we have one flight in front of us right now which is the 2JA Flight scheduled for launch in June of this year, June 13th. If something should fall off of their plate for whatever reason or something happened between the time 2JA leaves and the time that we arrive, we might actually end up with those tasks on our plate, either EVA IV, there’s a variety of iterations that could happen that could affect our flight and all of a sudden cause our priorities to shift. So although we’re not necessarily bringing up a big chunk of metal, it’s still a very important mission as all the missions are.

How do you imagine space station’s importance might be characterized some years from now in humankind’s history by people who routinely travel back and forth between Earth and other worlds, based in part because of what’s being discovered on space station now, the work that’s happening on space station now?

I think space station from whether it’s the science that’s being done on board or whether the fact that human beings are just doing it, you know. Human beings were never meant to live in space, yet we do. And years ago, twenty years ago, within my lifetime when I was a kid growing up, never would have conceived the thought of human beings, a colony in space. Yet we have one. What this represents is the first step for doing some of the things that you just mentioned, for going off, going back to the moon, going on to Mars, going on to other planetary systems. And you know, years from now, I’m hoping that humanity’ll look back at what NASA’s done, what the international community has done with the International Space Station and really appreciate the importance and, when you’re taking the first step into a realm that’s unknown, it might be real easy to sit here and maybe throw stones and say that we should have done it this way, should of done it this way, you know, do this, do this, do this. But the reality is that the risk is in taking that first step and, if you sit back and think, and try to constantly rationalize and think, “Well, let’s do it this way. Let’s do it this way. Let’s do it this way”, you’ll spend all your time thinking about what you should do instead of just getting down and doing it. And that’s what we’re doing now is we’re out there, we’re exploring space, we’re setting the path for the future and humanity will continue to explore space from here and this is the first step.