Space Miners: The Pass of the North Becomes a Passage to the Stars

By Lisa Y. Garibay / UTEP Communications

A passage between mountains. A path along a river. A way to adventure, riches, bounty, the unknown. For centuries, the Paso del Norte region has beckoned nomads following herds and conquerors chasing glory. For ages, the El Paso area has retained a stoic stillness despite all that has passed through it. The river dries, then flows as the mountains are whipped with wind; the desert does what it always has while humanity does what it has evolved to do – challenge, change, look at something seemingly beyond reach and declare, “I am going there.”

Jessica Buckner is a Ph.D. candidate in materials science with a focus in aerospace studies, and a research assistant at CASSMAR. Buckner entered UTEP’s accelerated doctoral program after receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in metallurgical and materials engineering from UTEP. Photo by J.R. Hernandez

The Paso del Norte region, this pass of the north, has witnessed millions on their way to a new life. In the 21st century, and for The University of Texas at El Paso’s next century, this place is set to become the heart of exploration of frontiers well beyond Earth.


Ahsan Choudhuri and John “Danny” Olivas are a big part of UTEP’s long-term strategy to bring this region to the forefront of space exploration. The plan includes growing the University’s NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR) and its Center for the Advancement of Space Safety and Mission Assurance Research (CASSMAR). Choudhuri and Olivas have joined in a University effort to develop even more research facilities, and – most fundamental to the University’s mission – create additional graduate degree and certificate programs for students to become leaders in this field.

Choudhuri, Ph.D., is chair of UTEP’s mechanical engineering department and director of cSETR, which he established upon arriving at UTEP in 2001.

“I was told UTEP was all about opportunity, so I decided to come here to teach and build the aerospace program for its students to have a shot in this career,” he said.

Doctoral student Martin de la Torre is one who has been impacted by the opportunities at UTEP. While many jobs at space-related organizations require U.S. citizenship or residency, cSETR helped the Mexican national gain cooperative education placement as a thermal fluid science engineer with engine technology giant Cummins Inc., where he was recognized as Analysis and Testing Technology employee of the month. He hopes to rejoin that team after completing his Ph.D.

“cSETR has been a great stepping stone in my career and that of my peers by providing me with a wide variety of equipment and technology utilized in the engineering industry,” de la Torre said.

cSETR received its first $5 million grant in 2009 and its second in 2015 to develop rocket engines using liquid methane as a new “green” propellant. Choudhuri proudly describes the research program as one of the largest in the country and one that has put UTEP on the map as an aerospace powerhouse. Despite this, the educator believes one shortcoming must be resolved.

“All the students are highly talented, but none of them are in El Paso,” he said. “We trained them, they now have very good careers, and it has made a big impact on their lives. But technically, it did not make an impact on our community’s life because we weren’t able to retain them.”

For Choudhuri, the last 15 years were dedicated to creating a research ecosystem at the University, building extraordinary capabilities that allow students to get solid training so they can be players in federal agencies like NASA or in private endeavors like space tourism outfit Blue Origin. Now, he and his partners are focusing on bringing jobs to the area to raise the quality of life for all of El Paso.

Olivas, Ph.D. – an El Paso native and UTEP graduate – is one of the lucky few who have left Earth’s orbit as an astronaut. In 2013, he landed back at UTEP to lead CASSMAR.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is teach the researchers – and by that I mean the students – that when you approach a problem, you can’t just look at it from your narrow focus of expertise,” Olivas said. “As I like to say, the space industry, even though it’s rocket science, is not just rocket science.”

In tandem with CASSMAR’s opening, UTEP was one of just a handful of universities granted remnants from Space Shuttle Columbia by NASA’s Columbia Research and Preservation Office at the Kennedy Space Center. Perhaps as a testament to the agency’s faith in the UTEP center’s capabilities, it was given the largest pieces.

MARTIN DE LA TORRE Is a doctoral student in energy engineering and a research assistant at cSETR. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UTEP. Photo by J.R. Hernandez
Martin De La Torre is a doctoral student in energy
engineering and a research assistant at cSETR. He received his bachelor’s
and master’s degrees from UTEP.
Photo by J.R. Hernandez

Study of these pieces is central to CASSMAR’s day-to-day activities. Columbia disintegrated upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. All seven crew members died.

Olivas’ team, which includes doctoral research assistant Jessica Buckner, is working to ensure that does not happen again.

The opportunities afforded to students like Buckner include internships at NASA facilities like Glenn Research Center, Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center and White Sands Test Facility, as well as private corporations that contract with the federal agency. This connectivity plus her own dedication earned Buckner a Department of Defense fellowship that will guarantee her a job at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico upon graduation.

But she will be away from El Paso, and therein lies the rub.

Engineers and scientists who graduate from UTEP are so desirable for their skill sets and career preparation that they are snapped up immediately, at times given offers even before their degrees are in hand, by those trailblazing space exploration and its related industries.

Up to now this has mostly been NASA and its contractors, but fierce private competitors like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are quickly expanding the industry. All are scrambling for the most capable personnel, the most successful research, the most impressive missions. And all are headquartered elsewhere.

But with UTEP’s ongoing work and planned expansion, these entities may hurry to get here as soon as possible.

This part of the world may seem unlikely for the heights involved in space exploration. But on a basic logistical level, it suits explorers. For those early-era trailblazers, there was a life-giving river, the Rio Grande; for 21st century technological wizards, there are vast swaths of empty land.

“The West Texas region provides a valuable environment for developing and testing new aircraft and rockets with comparatively low cost,” said Mason Peck, Ph.D., former chief technologist for NASA. “The wide-open spaces and sparse population ensures that this kind of research and development can proceed safely and efficiently.”

El Paso’s hat trick combines the physical environment with Mexico’s history of low-cost, solid quality aerospace component manufacturing and the high-power scientific capacity of UTEP, White Sands and Department of Energy labs to the north. Peck calls it “a corridor of regional high-tech capability” that will attract many others like it has Blue Origin, which set up shop in nearby Van Horn, Texas.

An additional capability is UTEP’s strength in another kind of science: economics.

“There’s a lot of research, design and industrial activity in the region surrounding us and UTEP sits in the center of that,” said Patrick Schaefer, executive director of UTEP’s Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness. “[The University is] in this strategic position to develop trade links, manufacturing facilities, and research and design to support those outlying activities throughout the Southwest and Mexico.”

Schaefer and his team of economists, which includes students receiving real-world experience in this integral sector, have been working on a web-based aerospace map cataloging all industrial, research and development, design, launch, and academic activity being undertaken in New Mexico; Chihuahua, Mexico; and West Texas. It aims to be a very persuasive argument substantiating why businesses should invest locally.

Echoing this assessment of local value is Robert Queen, director of the El Paso, Texas and New Mexico U.S. Export Assistance Center, which is managed by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration.

“This region is one of the most competitive manufacturing centers in North America,” Queen said. “Companies have the ability to produce quality products either in Mexico or the U.S.A., and both production sites can be only a few steps apart.”

UTEP began as an institution geared toward the mining industry, preparing its graduates to delve deep into the ground to excavate the raw materials that would satiate the ravenous appetite of an industrializing nation. While the University has expanded well beyond its original purpose, it has perpetuated the tradition of equipping graduates with all they need to succeed, both in mindset and skill set.

Whether dealing with exploration miles below or above Earth, it all comes down to people. Making students its greatest investment means that UTEP alumni are leading the way to space.

“UTEP’s students have access to extraordinary, cutting-edge equipment that puts them at the forefront of experiential learning,” Peck said. “Engineering students at UTEP are exposed to 3-D printing and other contemporary paradigms from their very first semester. That experience makes them highly sought after in the youthful, vibrant environment of space startups, which embrace new approaches to technology.”

Global aeronautics leader Lockheed Martin was an early partner with UTEP’s education efforts in the field, from concentrated recruitment of graduates to a $600,000 on-campus facility for engineering students to put theory into practice. While aeronautics focuses on aircraft that stay within the Earth’s atmosphere, its technology factors heavily in space travel. At UTEP, Lockheed has invested in aeronautics research while firing up a future workforce.

David Rapisand, director of overhead control and financial management for Lockheed Martin, explained that the success of the three-year initiative aimed at student training and hiring of graduates led to Lockheed’s sponsorship of the University’s Mechanical Engineering Lab in 2011.

Furthermore, Lockheed’s leaders were so impressed with how its presence at UTEP functioned as a hands-on teaching lab that it extended its agreement with the University for another five years in July 2015. Other companies have noticed the Lockheed Martin presence at UTEP and have inquired about how they might achieve success in working with the University and in recruiting top graduates.

“These companies, like Lockheed Martin, are working on building a workforce that meets 21st century demographics,” Rapisand said. “If companies are going to be competitive both financially and technically, establishing relationships similar to Lockheed Martin’s at UTEP will prove valuable in meeting those challenges.”

Blue Origin is among a handful of companies breaking ground in space tourism, hoping to offer everyday people a chance to buy a ticket and touch the stars. But even with a consumer-oriented business model, the need for top personnel and technology is still there.

Chris Navarro, a project manager for Blue Origin who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from UTEP, is emphatic that he wouldn’t be where he is now without the experience the University gave him.

“I was able to start my master’s right when NASA started funding cSETR and we were effectively building it from the ground up,” Navarro recalled. “Dr. Choudhuri gave us free reign; he’d give us a project scope and let us do it.”

That hands-on hardware design and testing meant he was able to easily segue into professional responsibilities. It’s a big difference from what some of Navarro’s fellow alumni have seen when they go out into the working world and meet peers who are steeped in theory versus practicality.

“There are a lot of engineers out here who have not seen hardware or even worked with it,” said Chance Garcia, Ph.D., a liquid propulsion combustion device design engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Garcia received all three of his degrees at UTEP. “In terms of coming to the job with hardware experience, I think that’s where UTEP really excelled for me and helped me get into the motion of things here at work a lot quicker than most people,” he said.

Navarro is eagerly serving as a bridge between his employer and potential future employees to show what his alma mater can do. He coordinated a visit by UTEP students to Blue Origin’s headquarters – a first for the notoriously secret company – just weeks before it made history with the flight and landing of its reusable New Shepard space vehicle. In fact, it was Navarro’s team that facilitated developmental and acceptance testing of the engine that powered the vehicle.

“Before, NASA, my company and others would go after other university’s graduates. But now, they’re seeing what we’re doing at UTEP and saying, ‘Hey, these guys are pretty solid. They’re graduating very knowledgeable students who can go right into the workforce.’”

Space industry decision makers know it is the students of today who will be living tomorrow’s dreams of space travel. UTEP is connecting the industry and students, empowering both to move forward quickly and confidently into a productive future.

For Garcia and his wife, Zenia, who is also a UTEP alumna working as a vehicle structures design engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center, that future may include moving back home to start their own company. It’s a direction they’ve often discussed with fellow alumni who have established solid career paths within the space industry but want to return to El Paso.

And while Buckner’s postdoctoral job will be taking her hundreds of miles away, she remains her hometown’s fiercest defender and her university’s biggest cheerleader.

“When you think of engineering, you don’t necessarily think of El Paso,” she said. “[But] we don’t have to live in Dallas or Houston or Albuquerque to do cool, space-based stuff.”

Buckner has heard industry professionals say that one of the best traits of UTEP’s students is their humility and ability to adapt to different situations. That resourcefulness – that ability to keep going no matter what and with everything you’ve got – may be at the core of what UTEP and its surroundings have to offer the space industry. It’s a quality that this place and its people have been perfecting for ages.