Some local residents will be taking a long, long trip soon—like flying to the International Space Station. And while other local residents may not be going along for the ride, they play an integral part in these amazing voyages.
After a trip to Johnson Space Center when he was 7, West U’s Danny Olivas knew what he wanted to do in life. He was awed that his father, also an engineer, had played a part in helping to build engines for rockets for moon exploration. “It just stuck with me how many people were behind what went into space missions even though nobody may know their names,” Danny recalls. Later, he pursued a bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering and his doctorate in mechanical engineering and materials science. He worked at Dow Chemical Company, Kelly Air Force Base, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory before being selected to work for NASA in 1998. Danny has been chosen as one of six crewmen for a mission to the International Space Station in February 2007.
It may be hard to imagine Danny Olivas as a celebrity. This father of five children, ranging from age 3 to 11, is known to families as “Coach Danny” for his many roles as coach—sometimes coaching two teams per season. Danny is also a Cub Scout leader, serves on the Pack 266 committee for his sons, and teaches Sunday school at St. Anne’s Catholic Church.
Yes, this low-key and modest family man is likely to have his name and face splashed across national media. As part of the crew of STS-117, he will deliver the second starboard truss segment to the space station. He feels that luck played a big part when it comes to why he was selected. “There are so many people at Johnson Space Center who are very talented and committed to this job,” he says. “It is a privilege to work in an environment where everyone around you wants to be the best at what he or she does.”
Danny and another local-area astronaut, Christer Fuglesang, are spending time training extensively for their flights. Christer and wife, Elisabeth, moved to Bellaire from Sweden some nine years ago with their children, now ranging in age from 11 to 20. A member of the European Space Agency, Christer was selected to join NASA/Johnson Space Center, and this December will travel with the STS-116 Space Shuttle mission as the first Swedish astronaut in space.
For those who dream of going up in space, both men’s paths to get there may be an inspiration. After graduating with a master’s in engineering physics and a doctorate in experimental particle physics, Christer worked for CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and the world’s largest particle physics center. In 1992, a friend showed him a newspaper classified ad for the European Space Agency, which Christer recalls matter-of-factly: “ESA was looking to select five Swedish representatives for their space program, so I applied and got the job.”
In 1996, Christer came to work for NASA. He attributes his selection to go on a mission to his belief in the space program and “a lot of luck,” emphasizing that many at NASA are equally talented and qualified. Christer will be involved in the mission’s space walk, where he’ll attach new hardware to the International Space Station to change the electrical power system.
There are thousands of employees at NASA all playing critical roles that will help these astronauts accomplish their goals. One of those behind-the-scenes guys is West U resident Larry Moon, assistant manager for the shuttle station engineering office and a NASA employee for 31 years. Larry works closely with ESA, as Italy is building an additional element for the space station, Node 3. Pat McLaughlan a NASA employee for over 40 years, is a project engineer in charge of designing the space suits used when astronauts go outside the space shuttle into the vacuum of space. “A space suit is compared to a miniature space craft. It has to provide a livable environment—oxygen, radio communication, and a pressurized environment,” Pat explains. “A space suit also needs a propulsion system if the crewman should happen to be separated from the space craft.”
For many, the idea of space travel requires tremendous courage. “It should scare you. If it doesn’t, you’d be dangerous,” cautions Danny, who says he has a healthy respect for space. Danny’s wife, Marie, is supportive about Danny’s mission, not to mention being left to care for their five children while Danny stays in space for 12 days. “Danny’s boyhood dream became an 18-year enterprise, and we are thrilled to share his exploration of space even so much as in spirit,” she says. Bon voyage and a safe return, Danny and Christer!