John D. Olivas, Ph.D. was born in North Hollywood, California, but considers El Paso, Texas to be his hometown. Married and has 4 children. Recreational interests include running, weightlifting, hunting, fishing, surfing, and mountain biking.
He attended Burges High School, El Paso, Texas; received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas-El Paso; a masters of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Houston and a doctorate in mechanical engineering and materials science from Rice University.
Sanchez:As an astronaut you are constantly working and preparing yourself to enter into a very unforgiving environment. I noticed by reading your biography that your road from college to becoming a space explorer was not a direct one. You worked for a private company and completed your masters and doctorate work at different colleges.
Olivas:As things will work out when I left college I knew what I wanted to do on a long-term basis in that I knew that I wanted to work in the space program than it was to be an astronaut. To be an astronaut was something I did have my sights on but more importantly I have always been very passionate about working in the space program so working in an industry that supported the space program was something that I was striving for. Unfortunately when I graduated with my bachelor of science degree from the University of Texas-El Paso there were not a lot of employment opportunities within NASA. I found an opportunity to work for Dow Chemical Company, which was in the Houston area, and this way I could also stay informed as to what was going on in NASA.
Sanchez: Sounds like it was a strategic career move to wait for NASA to begin hiring again so you sought a work opportunity for industry in the neighborhood and to stay informed and networked?
Olivas: Yes, definitely. As I returned to college to compete my masters at the University of Houston (U of H). I had an opportunity to do a doctoral program at Rice University and at the same time working at Kelly Air Force base. I kept thinking that I had a greater opportunity to someday get into NASA by becoming more affiliated with the aerospace and so I went ahead and I left the job at Dow and focus on working with the Air Force base and finishing up my degree program. Upon graduation I obtained a position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California and that was pretty much my launching pad into NASA. I received a great opportunity to work at JPL on the unmanned space programs so for me it has been a series of opportunities that were part luck and part being at the right place at the right time. I think it was also a matter of making luck available to yourself by keeping your options opened and being flexible. As I shared before that when I left, after finishing my undergraduate degree program, that what I really wanted to go and do was not available at that time but I still kept my long-term goals in mind.
Sanchez: My observation so far through this interview is that it seems that since you could not go directly into what you really wanted to do as a career you decided to find a way to stay in contact within the industry that you wanted to be a part of and wait for the right opportunity to come forth. Using an analogy of sports it seems that in a way you were standing on the sidelines but you stayed focused on how the game was progressing and waiting for your turn to play to come along.
Olivas: Yes, I was trying to keep my opportunities open and staying flexible. One of the things to remember is that you cannot expect to achieve what you want to in life immediately. Very rarely does this happen. Life does not always evolve in a straight line. You have to be worldly and flexible and understand that the world will provide you with a number of diversions and as long as you stay focused on what your main objective is as you take those diversions you can use them to your advantage. You can learn and grow from them and they can still be applied towards what your main objective is whether it is to one day fly in space or to become a lawyer, a doctor or to go into business for yourself. They are all growing and learning opportunities.
Sanchez: It sounds like getting to the main goal is a matter of an accumulation of a lot of time invested and a lot of hard work.
Olivas: Yes, we in case in point referring to the experience of another NASA astronaut you interview which was Dr. Ellen Ochoa. When she was hired into the program flight opportunities were very much available and persons anywhere in a two to three year cycle were probably flying in space. However, in the environment I was hired in, which was in 1998, there was what you could say a "glut of unflown" astronauts. The problem was compounded by the fact that the completion of space station was falling further and further behind schedule so consequently flight opportunities were limited. I was here at NASA for about 4 ?¢ years and I had not yet received our first flight assignment but I could not let that distract me from why I was here and doing what I am doing now. As I said before, I kept in mind that my foremost objective was to be involved in the space program and that is really what I am doing. Being an astronaut is like icing on the cake. I figured that eventually the opportunity to go into space would come and it is all part of the journey.
Sanchez: I would like to focus on the fact that besides preparing yourself for space flight that you must also be responsible to teach and prepare others as well. What do you think are the skills students that are reading this article need to learn and strengthen while they are in high school and college in order to be at their very best in top professional careers like yours or other areas?
Olivas: I would say that the biggest things that high school students can gain while they are in school is to develop a philosophical trait that will help them understand that through hard work and determination that they can pursue whatever passion they want in life. Really, that is kind of a key. There is a whole set of skills that you get as a student that you may or may not use in your chosen career. However, it is how you get those skills that plays a more important role later on in life because if you are willing to work hard to overcome those obstacles that are in front of you then when you get to adulthood, on your own and in a profession then no matter what kind of obstacles are placed in front of you will in turn be able to overcome them with that same philosophy. So it's more of developing a mindset. I look at myself as being a very average person. I am not a person of exceptional intelligence, strength or wisdom. I am just like you. I am just a normal guy. If a normal guy like me can do it then others that believe in themselves and apply themselves then we can understand and appreciate it that they can accomplish anything they set their minds on.
Sanchez: Where can a student go to learn and develop this mindset?
Olivas: Actually to find this mindset you have to look within yourself. There is an excellent poem that was written by a gentleman named Edgar A. Guest and it is called "Equipment" (some of his poems displayed at: http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/displaypoet.cfm?PoetNumber=143/). I have carried that poem with me for many, many years. A quick summary of it is that as we look across this land of ours and you see all these people who you envision as being role models in our lives you realize that they take their food from a common plate as you do, they have to tie their shoe laces just like you do, they get up in the morning just like you do, and we all basically have the same set of equipment we were born with. God gives us this equipment when we are born and it is up to us to decide what we are going to do with it. We can choose to squander it the opportunities are available to us. If we choose not to apply ourselves well then ultimately we are responsible for the outcomes in our lives. And in the same respect if you choose to take advantage of these opportunities and take advantage of all that God has given to us then our abilities are boundless.
I got the poem from a person who at that time was my girlfriend and is now my wife and who has been one of my biggest supporters throughout my life. She gave this poem to me and it had such a profound impact on me that every time I felt like I was not good enough or maybe thinking that I can't do it and start doubting myself I would pull out this poem and read it to myself. It tells me no that is wrong it is up to me to decide that yes I can do it and that I am going to go out and do it. If I fail, I will learn. If I succeed, I will also learn. So by going through the effort of trying and really applying yourself will you really start to grow and you learn from all experiences both successes as well as failures.
Sanchez: I guess we don't always realize and understand the full lesson we have learned while we are feeling low from a failure we may have just experienced.
Olivas: Yes, I would say that in fact often is the case where we learn more about ourselves by our failures than by our successes because sometimes when you get it right sometimes you don't really know if it happened because you are good or because you were just lucky. To be quite honest I think I would prefer to be lucky and good any day because luck is what tends to save you from tragic situations. The important thing to remember is that luck and opportunity are two things that are very close and related. Some people see others individuals that seem to have a lot of opportunities come to them and they say "gee, that is a lucky person" or "that person had all the luck" but it is quite likely that what really happened was that a person that had luck come upon them actually were there to make the opportunity available. They were actually applying themselves. For me it was the reason I got my masters degree. It was the reason I got my doctorate. It was because I knew that as I continued to becoming more educated and to learn more about the world around me as well as learning more about the details of my discipline then I would see and experience more. I consider myself to be a pretty lucky person but I also think to myself that a lot of those opportunities came about because of a path that I chose. If I decided not to choose those paths then would those opportunities have been afforded to me? I think probably not.