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Rooftop Dreams Shape Destiny

by Kimberly A. Miller and David Peregrino

Schoolbooks alone couldn’t satisfy John “Danny” Olivas’ thirst for knowledge.

The best lessons often came from building model-rocket motors in the backyard or helping his dad take apart a car engine in the driveway of their El Paso home.

Danny Olivas in front of the shuttle

photo courtesy of Danny Olivas

Olivas with a mock-up of the space shuttle.
But eventually, this mechanical aptitude began to dovetail nicely with math and physics theories Olivas learned in UTEP classrooms.

And it produced a remarkable result: The 1989 Miner grad is now a NASA astronaut scheduled for his first flight into space aboard the shuttle Atlantis in June. He’ll be part of the mission STS-117 crew that will deliver and install a truss segment for the International Space Station.

Olivas, who earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from UTEP, is being honored as a 2006 Distinguished Alumni.

“I’m just a guy who likes to work and happy to have technical challenges,” says Olivas, who describes himself as just a “construction worker” for the space program. “I don’t see myself any differently than many of the fine engineers and scientists that I’ve had the fortune of working with in the past … and certainly no more deserving than they.”

Olivas holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science from Rice University, but he says he was just a “middle-of-the-road” student during his days at Bonham Elementary, MacArthur Middle and Burges High schools in El Paso.

Underwater training - simulates weightlessness

photo courtesy of Danny Olivas

Underwater training simulates the weightlessness of space.
Still, his mother Carmen Olivas, a schoolteacher, and father Juan Olivas, a locomotive electrician, encouraged his youthful inquisitiveness.

“They got me a little kids’ telescope. I remember climbing up on the top of my roof and looking at the stars and moon,” Olivas remarks, adding he often thought about rocketing through space toward those stars.

Olivas and his father also worked together on the family cars. The experience gave him the confidence and skills to rebuild the six-cylinder motor in his 1969 Ford Ranger while a junior in high school. It’s a truck that’s still running to this day.

“My father was, in my opinion, the world’s greatest mechanic and engineer. As a kid I would work with him to fix everything,” Olivas says. “I never saw a project he was unwilling to take on because it was too hard or intimidating.”

Olivas’ parents also inspired him to work hard on his education. When he was in middle school, he proudly watched his mother receive her diploma at a UTEP commencement. And his father earned his associate’s degree while in his 50s.

Now retired and living in El Paso, Carmen and Juan Olivas knew their son’s curiosity and rambunctious energy would lead him to great places.

“This is his childhood dream. We are very happy for him,” says Olivas’ mother, who admits she’s nervous about the upcoming space adventure. “He’s still my baby.”

Olivas first applied to NASA during a hiring freeze: “The recruiter told me to keep gaining experience, so I’d be ready when they started hiring.”

Olivas took an engineering position with Dow Chemical, and after earning his master’s and Ph.D., became a senior research engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Through it all, he kept his eye on the goal of going into space.

He was named to NASA’s astronaut program in 1998 and has worked in the Robotics Branch and helped develop tools and techniques used to repair the shuttle in orbit.

Olivas, who is married and a father of five children, is thrilled to be this much closer to fulfilling his childhood dream. But he’s keeping it all in perspective.

“At the end of the day it is still just a job. I stay focused on training and learning, and being a good father to my wonderful family,” he says. “Those are the things that are important.”

Originally published in the Fall 2006 issue of NOVA Quarterly Magazine