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El Pasoan and former astronaut Danny Olivas had critical role in investigation of Columbia tragedy

El Pasoan and former NASA astronaut Danny Olivas had an important role following the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster 10 years ago today.

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.”

During a speech at UTEP after the STS-117 mission, Olivas said he had talked to a person at NASA who said that everything that had gone wrong on that mission was worse than what had happened with the well-known Apollo 13 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.

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