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From OLLU to the moon: Four from university support rocket launch

Nov 16, 2022

OLLU alumna and rocket scientist Yvonne Villegas-Aguilera (BA 2002) played a pivotal role in today’s launch of Artemis 1, an uncrewed spacecraft that will orbit the moon.

A Branch Chief at NASA, Villegas-Aguilera supervised the solid propulsion engineers who designed the solid rocket boosters of Artemis 1 and the engineers who designed the pyro devices that ignited the boosters. Each booster produced 3.6 million pounds of thrust, equivalent to 4 four-engine jumbo commercial airliners, and separated from the spacecraft two minutes after launch, falling into the ocean.

“I am proud to say I was a part of helping get to this day,” Villegas-Aguilera wrote on a Facebook post after the launch. “I work with such a great team and look forward to many more missions to come!”

Two other OLLU graduates and one doctoral student played supporting roles in the successful launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the first in a series of missions that aim to build a permanent human presence on the moon.  

As NASA Johnson Space Center’s executive communications manager, Isidro Reyna (BA 2006) works closely with the center’s leadership team. He manages communications strategies to provide the public and media with information about Artemis 1 (322 feet tall), the launch and the series of NASA missions that will carry astronauts to the moon and build permanent outposts on the lunar surface.

Adriana Babiak-Vazquez (PhD 2016) and Judith Hayes, a Leadership Studies student at OLLU-Houston, supported the design and development of the Orion capsule that sits atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

“Our organization sets the human health standards and requirements for building this human rated capsule,” said Hayes, who has supported every human space flight program at NASA since 1984. “We also assess the human systems risk associated with these types of missions.”

Hayes serves NASA as a Division Chief of biomedical research and environmental sciences. Babiak-Vazquez is a NASA epidemiologist.

In 2009, Villegas-Aguilera helped design and assemble the rocket motor for the Ares I-X, the first test flight of NASA’s moon rocket. From Mission Control, she monitored the temperature and performance of the rocket motor. 

The Artemis 1 uncrewed spacecraft is the first step in returning astronauts to the moon. If successful, another mission will carry the first woman and first person of color to the lunar surface in 2025. OLLU ingenuity and spirit will be part of the history-making day.