Mark McDermott

The astronaut and the border

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Astronaut John “Danny” Olivas spacewalking during Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-128 mission. Photo courtesy NASA

Astronaut Danny Olivas, who is from the El Paso neighborhood targeted in the August 3 mass shooting, believes lessons learned in space can help heal the divisions America now experiences

by Mark McDermott 

On June 9, 2007, the day after the Space Shuttle Atlantis mission STS-117 launched into Earth’s orbit, its crew made an alarming discovery. Using the shuttle’s robotic arm, astronauts conducted a visual inspection of the vehicle’s exterior and found a small, triangular-shaped tear in its thermal protection system. Though NASA publicly downplayed it at the time, everyone involved with the mission knew just how critical the problem could prove to be. This was only the fourth mission since the fatal disintegration of Space Shuttle Columbia, which had occurred four years earlier. 

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Astronaut Danny Olivas was aboard Atlantis, his first time in space after nearly two decades of striving towards space flight. Olivas, an engineer with a Ph.D. in materials science who now lives in Manhattan Beach, had voluntarily removed himself from flight status for two years in the wake of Columbia and joined the team of engineers in order to better understand what had occurred and prevent it from happening again. 

“We lost the vehicle, but most importantly, we lost seven astronauts,” Olivas said. “For me, personally, I lost seven colleagues, and I lost seven friends.” 

Columbia’s problem had likewise been damaged thermal protection that resulted when a piece of foam insulation broke off from the shuttle’s launch rocket and struck its left wing, punching a hole in its heat shield. Astronauts aboard Columbia were unaware the damage had occurred. On the ground, NASA managers were aware of the damage, but most didn’t believe it was critical; thermal protection wasn’t needed for orbit, and other shuttles had sustained damage and still managed to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere successfully. At any rate, the astronauts couldn’t do anything about the problem. They had no means of repairing it. 

All that had changed in the four years since. Astronauts aboard Atlantis now had the means to not only better monitor damage to their shuttle, but to fix a wide array of issues that might arise. Yet when the Atlantis crew opened up the shuttle’s payload bay doors, the problem they discovered was something NASA had not contemplated. The damage was not to the tiles of the main body’s heat shield, but rather to a blanket-like material that covered the tail of the vehicle, near the giant rocket engines known as the orbital maneuvering system, used to move the shuttle around in space. 

The hole in the fabric was believed to be mere inches. But the pressure on the area during reentry would be immense. In orbit, the shuttle traveled at 25 times the speed of sound, or 17,500 miles per hour. In order to slow down enough to land, during reentry, the shuttle would use the cocoon of gases that would surround the spaceship when it entered the Earth’s atmosphere to help slow its descent. Those gases, however, reached temperatures of 3,000 Fahrenheit. It was exactly this pressure that had led to Columbia’s demise. 

Astronaut Danny Olivas repairing Space Shuttle Atlantis’ thermal protection system during STS-117 mission. Photo courtesy NASA

The Atlantis crew sent photos of the torn fabric to mission control in Houston, and went about their mission, which was to deliver and install parts to complete the International Space Station (ISS) energy systems, including its solar arrays. The Atlantis also brought a new ISS crew member, Clayton Anderson, and intended to bring home ISS crewmember Sunita Williams, who had been in space for six months. 

Olivas knew more about the thermal protection system than anyone else on board. He also knew the engineers and mission crew on the ground very well, having spent two years working alongside them examining what had happened to the Columbia. He trusted they’d find a solution. 

What occurred on the ground over the next week was similar to what more famously occurred during the Apollo 13 mission, the intended moon landing in 1970 that went awry (“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” astronaut James Lovell reported) due to an explosion on board that rendered the service module largely inoperable. The crew at Mission Control worked to devise solutions to bring the space capsule home safely, using only what was on board to improvise repairs, most crucially to its carbon dioxide filters. The same thing occurred with STS-117. As Olivas recounts the story, a group that included scientists specializing in thermal protection systems, former astronauts, engineers, and NASA leaders put every tool that was on board Atlantis on a table before them and tried to work out a solution. 

“Everyone who knew the severity of the problem, and had knowledge on how to fix it,” Olivas said. 

It was considered an Extravehicular Activity (EVA) issue, NASA’s terminology for space walking, since the solution would clearly need to come by sending an astronaut outside the vehicle to repair the tear. The EVA toolkit was extensive, but nothing aboard seemed quite right. 

“They say when you have a hammer in your hand, that all the world’s problems to you look like a nail, and that’s what you are going to use to solve your problems,” Olivas said during a TEDx talk earlier this year. “You’ll notice how human an endeavor spaceflight is by looking closely to the tools used to do a spacewalk, [which] are actually very similar to the tools you’d probably find in your toolbox at home. You’ll see vice grips, pliers, scissors, spatulas. That’s because spaceflight is not that different. The environment is different, but it’s still a human endeavor.” 

Astronaut Danny Olivas,  who served NASA from 1998 to 2010 and spent 27 days and 17 hours in space. Photo courtesy NASA

One possible solution was a backpack and nozzle system that dispensed a gooey substance meant to repair tiles like those damaged on the Columbia, but it was meant for the belly of the vehicle and was finally deemed too uncertain to endure reentry from the outside. 

One man stood outside of the circle of scientists and engineers trying to work out a solution. He wore a white shirt and a tie; he was the flight physician, who monitored all the astronauts’ health, sleep, and even meal plans. He raised his hand. 

“Hey,” he said. “Can you use a stapler?” 

“We don’t have a stapler aboard,” an engineer said. 

“Yeah, you do,” the surgeon said. “It’s in the flight medical kit.” 

It was a medical stapler, like the one found in any doctor’s kit, meant for sutures. The engineers immediately tested it and realized this solution could actually work. The astronaut NASA chose to make the spacewalk and attempt the repair was Olivas. 

For Olivas, it felt like a prophecy fulfilled. He is Mexican-American and comes from a long line of men who had made their living with their hands. His great-grandfather, Valente Olivas, had crossed into Texas from Chihuahua in 1894 and worked for the next half-century on a copper smelter outside El Paso. His father, Juan, was a machinist with a knack for fixing things, which his son inherited. 

When Olivas was growing up, it was hard for him to imagine himself actually pursuing his dream, which from the age of 7 had been to be an astronaut. 

“Because I never thought of myself as having ‘the right stuff’,” Olivas said in an interview. “From the professors I interfaced with, to the astronauts I saw on television, none of them ever looked like me. And so I never thought of myself as being an astronaut. But what I was good at was fixing things… I always said, ‘I may not be good enough to be an astronaut, or smart enough, but they need someone to work on their spaceship. I’m a real good mechanic, so I can probably do that.’ So it was really maybe just the whole universe aligning that when it came time to fix the space shuttle, I was the one who was asked to go out and do it.” 

Early in the morning of the eighth day of STS-117’s mission, on June 15, Olivas switched his spacesuit to internal power, the airlock aboard the shuttle opened, and he walked into space. He anchored himself at the end of Atlantis’ robot arm and went to work on the tear outside the Orbital Maneuvering System. 

The helmet visor of astronaut John “Danny” Olivas, STS-117 mission specialist, serves as an easel of sorts as it reflects a pictorial account of a portion of a very busy session of extravehicular activity (EVA) on June 15 2007. Olivas stapled and pinned down a piece of thermal blanket on one of Atlantis’ orbital maneuvering system pods (reflected in his visor). The repair took three hours of a nearly eight hour spacewalk. The 4-by-6-inch corner of the blanket peeled up during the shuttle’s launch.

“The actual hole in the OMS structure was about 4″ x 6″ but the damage extended along the length of the leading edge of the blanket for about two feet,” Olivas said. “The repair was supposed to only take 1.5 hours to complete but actually took a little over three hours once I was able to determine the extent of the damage.” 

He and fellow astronaut Jim Reilly spent 7 hours and 58 minutes spacewalking, also folding up a solar array on the Space Station. Olivas successfully repaired the thermal blanket, as evidenced by the Atlantis’ safe return to Earth on June 22, 13 days and 20 hours after launching into space. 

Olivas thought of his father throughout his mission. Juan Olivas, who had worked on rocket parts for Gamma Precision Products in North Hollywood prior to returning to El Paso when Danny was four years old, planted the seed in his son’s imagination. 

“For Christmas one year, he bought me a telescope,” Olivas said. “I remember as a kid I would go up with him on top of the roof, and we’d look through the telescope and look at the moon. This was during the Apollo era, and that’s where I kind of got the whole space bug in me.”
On a family vacation to the Johnson Space Center in Houston when Olivas was 7, he remembers his father telling him and his brother and sister about his own little part in the space program. 
“I thought, ‘Wow, all that stuff I just saw in that museum, my dad was a part of that!’” Olivas said. “‘That’s what I want to do: I want to be a part of that, whatever that is. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but that’s what I want to do.” 
Olivas would eventually take part in another Space Shuttle mission, STS-128, in 2009. In total, he would spend 27 days and 17 hours in space, including 35 hours spacewalking. 
“And none of that would have happened,” he said, “if Valente didn’t come to the United States.” 
 

Astronauts from the Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-117 mission shortly after returning to Earth. Photo courtesy NASA

American Dreams 

Early in the afternoon of Aug. 3, Marie Schwarzkopf-Olivas watched in horror as the images poured across the television from El Paso. A white supremacist had shot and killed 22 people at the Walmart she and her family frequented, and her husband Danny still went to every year when he returned for hunting trips. 
 
Then she saw a familiar face, the sister of her best friend from childhood. She was on CNN, distraught, across the street from the shooting. Their 86-year-old mother, Angie Englisbee, had last been heard from while standing in line inside the Walmart. “I’ll be home in a few minutes,” she’d told her son, Rick, by phone, moments before the attack. 
Hours later, her family received confirmation that Angie had been one of the victims. 
 
“This is our family,” Danny Olivas said. “It’s very visceral. It’s real. Because it’s something we never, ever thought could happen in El Paso. It could have been us.” 
 
“That’s our neighborhood. It’s right by Burges High School, the school we graduated from. We both went to Cielo Vista Mall, which was the mall where all the chaos was breaking out. Every time we go to El Paso, we go to that Walmart. It’s the same Walmart that my mom buys her bread or milk at. So this really hit home for us.” 
 
The Olivas family had been moved to action more than a year earlier when children began being detained and separated from their families at detention centers along the United States-Mexico border. Olivas, as a former astronaut, had always stayed out of anything that could be perceived as the political fray. But well before the shooting, El Paso came under fire from President Trump and his supporters. Trump, in his State of the Union Address, referred to El Paso as “one of our nation’s most dangerous cities” as he argued for a border wall to stop what he described as an invasion.
 

Marie and Danny Olivas at the United States-Mexico border near Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Photo courtesy the Olivas family

 
Danny and Marie Olivas didn’t recognize El Paso in the president’s descriptions. The couple experienced an idyllic childhood in the border town, one in which the actual border was not the least bit frightening but something quite the opposite. Both regularly crossed the Sante Fe bridge into Juarez, Mexico. 
 
“When we were growing up, and still today, people from Juarez…they were our neighbors,” Marie Olivas said. “That’s just where they lived. The house they lived in just happened to be on the other side of the border.  We went to school with them, they were our friends, we went to parties with them. We crossed the border just as if it was any bridge. They were our neighbors, and are still our neighbors today.” 
“I remember not even knowing, not having to make the distinction if somebody was Mexican or American,” Danny Olivas said. 
 
El Paso, contrary to the President’s rhetoric, is also one of the safest cities in the U.S. In 2019, El Paso ranked No. 6 on the list of the “Top 10 Safest Metro Cities” among those with populations over 300,000, according to data collected by SafeWise, a home security and safety website. Over the last two decades, El Paso at times ranked 1st in the nation in safety and rarely out of the top three. Its violent crime rates, at present, rank just below San Diego’s and just above San Jose’s. 
 
It’s also a military town, which is what drew Marie’s family. Her father, U.S. Army Major Donald Francis Schwarzkopf, served in WWII and the Korean War and then was stationed 20 years at Fort Bliss. 
“That’s how my dad ended up in El Paso, he was military and just fell in love with El Paso,” she said. “You know, I’m the baby of nine, he had all these children and said, ‘I’m staying here in El Paso.”
“We know the people we grew up with, and they love this country just as much as any other American,” Danny Olivas said. “In fact, because Fort Bliss is right there, you have a lot of veterans, you have a lot of active-duty military. El Paso has been as American as American can get.” 
 
Danny and Marie lived blocks from each other growing up, and her brother served as his swim coach, but they didn’t meet until college at the University of Texas at El Paso. She was a business major and a dancer at UTEP; he studied engineering, and on a lark, took a dance class. 
 
“I started taking a ballet class to meet girls,” he said. “We first saw each other in a ballet class, where she thought I was a real jerk and I thought she was very attractive. We were both right.” 
A year later, their paths crossed again, when both were in a student production of “Evita,” she as a lead dancer and he as part of the ensemble. 
 
“I just did it to blow off steam from engineering, but after [the production’s] strike, it was our very first kiss,” he said. “From that point on, we were together, and on August 19 of 1989, we got married.” 
Even before marriage, the couple together hatched a plan: Danny would become an astronaut. He applied with NASA for the first time in 1988, and regularly thereafter. They moved to Houston for graduate school; she obtained a master’s degree in education, and worked as a middle school teacher Freedman’s Town, a poor area of the city, while Danny stayed in school and obtained his Ph.D. He took a job in a small city south of Houston after college. That’s when he first realized how different things could be from El Paso, where race divisions are all but nonexistent. 
 
“Marie and I got married in El Paso, and never in my wildest dreams did I ever consider myself to be in a mixed-race marriage because it’s such a homogenous place that we lived,” said Olivas. “Then we moved to a small city called Clute, Texas, where I went to work for a chemical company, and it was there that some of the older technicians and journeymen that I worked with made it very clear to me that this marriage was not to their approving, and the kind of racism that I would face.” 
 
One day, Olivas did some calculations for a project he had been assigned and took the completed work to a journeyman. The man asked if another engineer, Olivas’ peer, had approved the numbers. 
“No,” Olivas said, not quite comprehending. “This is my project. I’m doing this, and here are the numbers you need to use.” 
The man told him, in racially pejorative terms, that the only way he’d accept a Hispanic’s calculations is if he had to choose them over an African American’s calculations. He sent him to another engineer, who was white, to double-check the numbers. 
 
“No,” Olivas said. “You are going to take these for what they are, and if you have a problem with it, talk to my boss.” 
 
He would encounter racism throughout his career, even after he was finally selected by NASA, in 1998, as an astronaut. 
 
“As a U.S. astronaut, I have always tried to steer clear of politics…I’ve tried to be even-keeled, as opposed to giving my own personal opinion,” Olivas said. “But this idea of race has been an underlying theme that has been present my entire career, something that I have had to deal with.” 
 
During his first month within the astronaut corps, he was assigned an office with a classmate, who was white. One morning, his fellow astronaut turned to him and said, matter-of-factly, that Olivas was chosen as an astronaut because of the color of his skin, not his accomplishments. 
 
“And yet when I took a look at my credentials, my credentials were equal to or better than anyone else that got selected,” Olivas said. “So it was then that I realized that not even at that level were the subtleties of racism not there, not prevalent …Now, I was fortunate, because as an astronaut, you get a level of respect, even among your peers, so this is not something that is so blatant.” 
His wife remembers a refrain she’d hear throughout Olivas’ career. “Always ‘Blow it off,’ always, ‘Blow it off,’” she recalled. “But now that Hispanics are being targeted, now that they are being killed…” 
Olivas noted that social unrest was widespread at the time of the Apollo program, as well, and that the U.S. got through it. 
 
“And I think we’ll get through this time, as well,” he said. “But I think it’s important that we all remain engaged and not look the other way when we see what we see. If we are morally repulsed by what we hear, by what we see, we need to say that, we need to share it. We can’t remain quiet. Otherwise, we become complacent, and we become complicit with what’s going on, because we are failing to stand up and do something about it. And while maybe all that we are doing right now is sharing our voice and sharing our story, and just trying to get the word out to those who are willing to listen, that is better than staying quiet.” 
 

At the border 

In early April 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would institute a policy of “zero-tolerance” for undocumented immigrants. Formerly, people who were caught crossing the border for the first time were typically charged with misdemeanors and then released. Under the zero-tolerance policy, all undocumented immigrants would be fully prosecuted by the DOJ. What this meant, in practice, was that in order for prosecution to occur, Customs and Border Patrol would need to separate children from their parents.
 
As an internal White House memo later obtained by the Washington Post would reveal, this separation of families was not simply a byproduct of increased prosecution. Family separation was a policy unto itself, designed as a deterrent to prevent border crossings. 
 
 “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said in May 2018. “It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”
 
 As soon as family separation began occurring, photos of small children wailing as they were taken from their parents appeared in news outlets across the nation. 
 
Marie and Danny Olivas were at the border within days. Marie immediately launched a blog, on Facebook, called the “Olivas Border Blog.” Its intention was to unremittingly shine a light on what was occurring at the border, utilizing a network of hundreds of volunteer citizen “witnesses” who document everything occurring. 
 
“I deliberately tried to focus on the children,” she said. “I keep the blogs only about the children. I am just so thankful for the witnesses. We started out our mission acting as witnesses at the border. The idea was, ‘Look at this: this is going on. This is El Paso.’” 
 
According to a government report, in the wake of the zero-tolerance policy, 2,737 children were separated from their parents, some for days, some for weeks or months, and a few indefinitely. Six of those children have died while in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol.
 
Danny and Marie Olivas have five children. As a mother, what was occurring at the border particularly devastated Marie. She and Danny decided they couldn’t just stand by and watch. Their original intention was not political — they simply wanted to visit the children held in the detention centers in El Paso, and in Tornillo, a small town forty miles south along the panhandle of Texas where a tent city housing immigrant children had been constructed. Danny had written a children’s book, in both Spanish and English, about the Space Shuttle program, called “Endeavor’s Long Journey,” and hoped to give the books to the kids at the detention centers. 
 
“We thought, ‘Well, gosh, we’ve got these books…But the woman there, she told us they had their own curriculum,” Marie said. “Which was a lie.” 
 
The Olivas’ were denied entry to any of the facilities. Turned away, they began documenting what they saw — kids waving at them through the camp fence; a legal proceeding in which two unaccompanied little boys, ages 3 and 5, were expected to represent themselves before a judge; a group of American and Mexican kids meeting at a border barrier, taking turns petting a puppy through the slats in the fence. On Father’s Day, they decided to return again, later in the month. 
 
“Father’s Day was particularly hard for Danny this year because it was unbearable to realize how many immigrant fathers were not only without their children but their children’s whereabouts or the prospect of when and if they would ever see their children, unknown,” Marie wrote on her blog.  “Stories of politicians not gaining access to the Tornillo Children’s Facility started pouring in and we began to panic …Anyone who knows Danny knows he has a special gift for inspiring children. After all, Danny has been speaking to large groups of children, including El Paso children, for 20 years. Danny is not a politician and up until then only politicians and reporters had tried to gain access to the facility. As Danny’s partner, I was convinced the facility would recognize that Danny was not asking to gain entry for a political stand but rather to bring a message of hope. I believed rather naively the facility guards would welcome a Spanish speaking astronaut bringing a message of hope to their charges.” 
 
Olivas decided to use his status as a U.S. astronaut to help kids obtain legal representation, launching “Between Land and Sea — Borders from Space,” a campaign in support  of Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, Inc (DMRS), the largest provider of free and low cost immigration legal services in West Texas and New Mexico. 
 
He was also growing more outraged by what he was witnessing. 
 
“At the time there was this fear-mongering about this ‘invasion,’ that they were just pouring over the borders,” Olivas said. “We went down there also to show that is a lie. It’s not about it being inaccurate. It’s a lie; it’s a fabrication. It did not exist. I went with my son, about a month later, and we drove along the southern border of New Mexico, which parallels the border of Mexico and the United States, where all there are these white marble pylon markers which denote the U.S. and Mexican border. And there is no fence out there, there’s nothing — because there is no invasion.” 
 
“It’s so treacherous out there that no one would survive the journey, so they don’t need a wall out there,” Marie said. 
 
They also witnessed what appeared to be illegal actions by the border guards, as people seeking asylum were not even allowed to apply. Under federal law and international treaties, people fleeing persecution in their home country may seek to live in safety in the United States. Asylum seekers formerly had a process to follow, one in which they were allowed in the U.S., pending approval or denial of their application. 
 
“They are all trying to come here legally,” Marie said. “But there are armed guards, and we documented that those armed guards are saying, ‘No, you can’t come over,’  feet away from the port of entry, where they can claim asylum. They weren’t even allowing them to enter; there was no opportunity given to them. Or they were telling them stories, like, ‘Oh, you need to go that other port of entry, which is 50 miles — you have to walk through the desert, to get to that point of entry.’ This is when they were actually walking through the desert and people were like, ‘Why would you take your kid to the desert? What a ridiculous parent you are; you deserve to get your kid taken away.’ But they were telling them, ‘No, you need to get to that port of entry, and they would walk through miles of just treacherous desert and as soon as they entered that point of entry, guards would arrest them and say, ‘You just entered illegally.’ And they would take their children away.” 
 
Deportation isn’t something unique to this administration and its management of the border. The Obama administration deported 3 million people, mostly undocumented immigrants and those with criminal records, the most of any president in history.  What was new was the destruction of the asylum-seeking process and the separation and jailing of children. 
 
“I’m not a Democrat and I’m not a Republican,” Olivas said. “I’ve always considered myself to be independent, not registered to any political party. I believe I use my brain and my head to make my decisions, not affiliations. And if I ever had to say I’m one or the other I tend to be more conservative in my views. But what’s going on right now has absolutely nothing to do with political affiliation…The way that groups of people are being demonized and the horrific treatment of children going on right now in our country is not who we are as Americans, and we have to stand up and say this is not right. You can be a supporter of the American way of life and our democracy and look at what’s going on and say, you know what, we’ve got to fix this. This is a problem. We are better than this.” 
 

No borders 

The El Paso/Juarez area, as seen from the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Photo by Danny Olivas

On the second to last day of the STS-117 Space Shuttle Atlantis mission, Danny Olivas found himself with some unexpected time on his hands. The astronauts had been scheduled to come home that day, but due to weather at the Kennedy Space Center, they’d been waved off. This meant they had a half day with which to do absolutely nothing, an extreme rarity in spaceflight, where astronauts’ days are scheduled down to five-minute increments. 

 
Olivas and his spacewalking partner, Jim Reilly, decided to look at the stars. They made their way to the flight deck of the Atlantis, covered up all the hatches to make it as dark as possible inside, and looked out at the night sky. The rest of the crew were all on the mid-deck, so they had a very large view of the universe to themselves. 
 
“I’m a stargazer,” Olivas said. “I’m not an astronomer, but I love looking at the stars…to just put things into context, on the clearest night here on Earth, in the darkest area, you will see the Milky Way, you can see all sorts of stars, and beautiful celestial bodies. In space, the stars are not brighter, but there are orders of magnitude more because you don’t have to look through the atmosphere.” 
 
As Olivas looked out the rear window, he noticed, off the right wing of the Space Shuttle, what appeared to be two clouds in space. 
 
“Well, that doesn’t make any sense,” he thought. “You can’t have a cloud if you don’t have atmosphere, right?” 
 
He grabbed a pair of binoculars to look more closely at what he was observing, and then realized — he was looking at the Magellanic Clouds, which are actually our neighboring galaxies, formed at the same time as the Milky Way 14 billion years ago. Unlike our galaxy, these are not spiral in shape, but irregular. 
 
“When I looked through the binoculars, I remember distinctly when I looked in those little tiny eyepieces looking deep into this galaxy I saw more stars in that field of view than I could see above my head,” Olivas said. “And it just put things in perspective of just how incredibly small and incredibly insignificant we truly are. Despite the fact that we think we are all that and a slice of bread because we have a little bit of money, we can build a building, whatever the case may be — I mean, we are nothing, we are just almost insignificant space dust.”
 
But it was also inspiring. Olivas thought of all this little insignificant species has done, such as building the International Space Station he’d just visited, which has been populated by humans continuously since 2000.
 
“That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment,” Olivas said. “But yet it kind of pales in comparison to all we really can do. The space station was a collaboration of 16 countries across our globe, getting together, working across our differences and collaborating and doing something really phenomenal …Just think what we could do on our planet by putting that same energy towards solving problems. Yet we spend so much time focusing on those things that divide us and make us different. As you look down on the planet, the only borders you see are those between land and sea. And really everything else is something imagined by humans — humans have created these boundaries. From a celestial perspective, by being able to work together, and look beyond those differences and find a way to collaborate — it doesn’t mean we have to give up our identity, it doesn’t mean we have to give up our language, our cultures, anything — it just means we have to learn to work together, and by doing so, these problems that our country faces, whether it’s starvation, water, poverty, climate, these things can be solved if we are willing to work together. 
 
“Because we are out here by ourselves. This is rock. There is not a lot of rocks out here like this that we can get to. In fact, the closest one we can get to, the moon, is pretty desolate. So we don’t have a whole lot of options here. If we don’t work together to take care of our own home, and take care of each other, we are out of options. As wonderful as we are as human beings, being able to create and innovate, and have all these wonderful things that we build, if we work together, we could just do so much more.” 
 
Earlier in the flight, Olivas had taken some time to look not towards the sky but at the planet below, and specifically that speck of Earth where he’d come from, El Paso. He’d made a point to figure out when the Atlantis would fly above his old home so he could photograph it. 
 
“I remember programming the computer because I wanted to be there to take the picture,” Olivas said. “Because of the way the orbit recesses as you orbit the Earth — you orbit the earth once every 90 minutes, so you get either a sunrise or a sunset every 90 minutes — and because the Earth is rotating underneath as you are orbiting it, your orbit is constantly shifting.  So if you know what you what you want to take a picture of — it’s [a program] called WorldMap, and you type it in there and it sends you an alarm that says you are getting close to your picture spot. And so I took a picture of El Paso-Juarez area.” 
 
As Olivas looked down, he saw the landscape across which his great-grandfather, Valente, walked north 119 years earlier (29 years before federal law created the crime of illegal immigration), where he built a home and married his wife, Jesusita, with whom he’d have 18 children. What Olivas did not see was a border. 
 
“When you look at the city, it’s blended together, and the river is there, but you can’t see the border,” Olivas said. “Because it’s blended, and you are surrounded by the Chihuahua desert all around you.” 
He took the photo not for himself, but for El Paso, where he’d give his first presentation upon returning to Earth. 
 

“Migrants coming to the United States are not something to be feared. And they provide a tremendous benefit to our society — they ultimately become us. Just like my great grandfather did. He came over at a time when there was no such thing as illegal immigration. It was just immigration. “

“As an astronaut, what you want to do is take space and put it into a bottle, and bring it home and share it with people because there are so many unique aspects of it you just can’t possibly describe or take photographs of,” Olivas said. “You just can’t describe it. It infuses all of your senses. But since we can’t do that, we do the best that we can — we come back, and we tell stories, and we try to convey the experience that we had, and tell the more scientific and discreet things that happened to us in space.” 

 

All these years later, Olivas is still trying his best to convey what he saw and what he learned in space. He thinks about the physician at Mission Control, and how because the attempt to find a solution to Atlantis’ dire problem was inclusive enough to include someone who knew nothing of spaceflight, the shuttle made it home safely. The lesson, he believes, is about the power of diversity — not just of people, but of thought. But the overarching lesson, from space, is that we are all one people. 

“The border is nothing to be afraid of,” Olivas said. “And the people at the border are nothing to be afraid of. They are just like everybody else. We are all the same. We have the same wants and hopes for our children to have a better life than we have. I am a Catholic, and when I hear religion or faith invoked for why we can view people from other faiths or countries as different and maybe lesser and justification for why we need a border here…I mean from a cosmic sense, and even from a spiritual sense, that is a bastardization of that perspective, because from the eyes of my Maker we are all the same. We are all the children of a supreme maker, a creator, who has put us here on this planet basically to get along.” 
 

Astronaut Danny Olivas’ Bible, which he received as a child, aboard STS-117. Photo by Danny Olivas

Olivas is brought to tears when he thinks about the forces of division at play that inspired a man to drive hundreds of miles south to that Walmart in El Paso and murder people because of the color of their skin, and because of the idea, perpetuated very specifically by the leader of the free world, that they were invading. He is also brought to something he is not easily given to, a sense of outrage. 
 

“It’s just offensive for anyone in this country to look at me, my family, my children and consider us anything other than red-blooded Americans,” Olivas said. “In fact, I’d argue that I’m more American than the president of the United States. Because I put my life on the line for this country, in the most extreme sense. I fixed a U.S. space shuttle, Space Shuttle Atlantis, so that we could come home as a crew, to save my fellow colleagues and myself, and the program. This was after Columbia, so had we lost Atlantis coming home, where would the space program be today? Probably nonexistent. Yeah, but this Mexican-American…did what a true American would, and that is do my very best to serve my country. And for this administration to continue to demonize Hispanics to the point where Americans are being attacked, and not apologize for that, is offensive to me as his boss. He works for me. The president of the United States is employed by me, the U.S. taxpayer.” 

“The episode in El Paso, I never in my wildest dreams thought it would happen in El Paso, but I knew that day was coming. People have been calling us, people who want to know what they can do, how they can help. And it’s very simple: vote.” 
 
For more information, see the Olivas Border Blog on Facebook. To help the people of El Paso, the Olivas family suggests contacting the El Paso Shooting Victims’ Fund at epcf.org/victims or the Victims’ Families Scholarship Fund  at epcf.org/ELPYouth

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