The astronaut and the border
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
At the border
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.
“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.
“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.”