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Former NASA astronaut Danny Olivas to lead UTEP's center for space safety and mission assurance research

By Staff Report
Published On: Dec 24 2013 02:01:33 AM CST
Updated On: Aug 13 2013 06:44:44 PM CDT
EL PASO, Texas -

Former NASA astronaut and University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) distinguished alumnus John “Danny” Olivas, Ph.D., has joined UTEP as director of the Center for the Advancement of Space Safety and Mission Assurance Research (CASSMAR) and will oversee space initiatives on campus.

Olivas, who lives in Los Angeles, will travel to UTEP periodically for the job but expects to be able to do his work from L.A.

CASSMAR will serve as a cross-functional, multidisciplinary center focused on risk reduction research to make commercial human spaceflight safe and successful. Research will primarily focus on materials behavior issues that have been observed in specimens of the Space Shuttle Columbia. However, CASSMAR will involve disciplines from across campus, including the colleges of Engineering, Science, and Business Administration.

“The U.S. is at the dawn of a new era of space exploration, so I am thrilled about this development,” Olivas said. “UTEP has the right people, and the right facilities and capabilities to do this work. Plus, it sits in close proximity to nearby spaceports. It just makes sense to have CASSMAR here.”

UTEP has approximately 750 pounds of borrowed specimens from NASA's Columbia
Research Preservation Office. The specimens are already on campus.

Specimens at UTEP are: The port and starboard X-Links; port and starboard elevon
actuators; overhead windows number 7 and 8 with fuselage skin; and a portion of Xo582 bulkhead with payload bay rollers.

CASSMAR’s Executive Council is a diverse team of UTEP experts: Ann Gates, Ph.D., from computer science and director of UTEP’s Cyber-ShARE Center of Excellence; Steve Stafford, Ph.D., from the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering; and Aaron Velasco, Ph.D., from the Department of Geological Sciences.

The Executive Council has ties to multiple research centers housed at UTEP and will work synergistically with CASSMAR. Cyber-ShARE is a state-of-the-art computer science center that can support CASSMAR’s needs in knowledge, data sharing and integration. The Future Aerospace Science and Technology (FAST) Center will be a magnet for aerospace science and technology research by linking academic and entrepreneurial opportunities to NASA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy.

CASSMAR will also partner with the NASA-affiliated Center for Space Exploration Technology Research (cSETR), which conducts innovative research in propulsion and energy engineering. Key projects in cSETR include studying liquid methane as a form of green fuel to power future space shuttles and the construction of bricks using moon dust to create structures on the moon. Also, the NASA Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA) and Aerospace Education Lab (AEL) will work with CASSMAR to enhance access and opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for K-12 students.

“Dr. Olivas is an outstanding role model for students on our campus and in schools across this region, and we look forward to working with him to enhance UTEP's growing national reputation for innovative research and leadership in graduate and undergraduate education," said UTEP President Diana Natalicio.

Olivas had an important role following the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster 10 years ago this past February.

Columbia disintegrated on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere after a heat-resistant tile was struck by a piece of foam during launch.

Olivas was part of the team that investigated the Columbia disaster and helped develop materials, tools and techniques to perform on-orbit shuttle repair.

"The many observations made on a 500 /lm thick layer of char atop an  inconspicuous fragment of the glass which participated in the Columbia tragedy only serve to highlight the wealth of information that lies within her debris," Olivas said in a report on the Columbia tragedy. "The nature of the incident and subsequent breakup allow engineers to learn how to not only make our existing space flight safer, but provide a greater breadth of core knowledge for the next generation of rocket designers ...as human beings venture go beyond low earth orbit and on into deep space."

In June 2007, Olivas put some of the repair techniques developed post-Columbia tragedy to work when he was chosen to make a special spacewalk to staple and pin an insulation blanket that had come loose on the exterior of Space Shuttle Atlantis during STS-117.

"I know how the repairs had been developed," Olivas told Florida Today in 2007 during the mission. Olivas worked on repair techniques after the Columbia accident. "The proof is in the pudding. I was feeling very good about it."

The STS-117 mission had other issues, mostly having to do with the International Space Station.

"I mean we had a torn blanket (on Atlantis), we had an MEM card failure, we had a loss of attitude control of the ISS. Three computers shut down. We couldn't properly point the station to recharge the batteries of the solar panels. We were in a power-down mode, CO2 levels were rising," Olivas told Interspace News in Feb. 2008. "We were looking to potentially rationing our meals for up to 45 or 60 days in case we had to stay inside the ISS. We were about 12 hours away from abandoning the ISS. One thing after another. But then, by the moment it was time for us to leave, everything was back OK again. Between the flight crew and the ground flight control team all the issues were resolved, and we left the ISS in better shape than when we got there. And we learned a lot in the process. So for me, I couldn't have asked for a better first mission."

Olivas, a graduate of UTEP who also attended Burges High School, returned to space on STS-128 mission in 2009 before leaving NASA in 2010.

He wrote a children's book that was published this year.

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