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Monday, January 30, 2023

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SDSU Alumnus and NASA intern Joe Olivieri inside of the Vehicle Assembly Building with the Space Launch System before the Artemis I mission launch. (Photo courtesy of Joe Olivieri)

SDSU Alumnus Finding Clues to Deep Space Survival With Artemis I Mission

NASA internships were an unexpected dream come true for biology graduate whose experiments aim to learn how humans can survive space flight beyond the moon.
By Sarah White

While driving along Florida’s Space Coast for his first day as a Kennedy Space Center intern, a stunning pink and orange sunrise in his rearview mirror, San Diego State University biology alumnus Joe Olivieri (‘18) couldn’t believe his childhood dream was coming true. A few months later, the NASA intern would watch the Artemis I launch, the first step to humanity’s return to the moon and eventual crewed missions to Mars, with his colleagues.


“I was on-center for launch and it was exhilarating,” Olivieri said, the morning after the delayed launch in the wee hours of November 16.


Olivieri specifically studies how low-gravity environments change the genes and proteins that cells turn on and produce in response to DNA-damaging radiation in Kennedy Space Center’s Microgravity Simulation Support Facility. He hopes this project and the research he will do during his experimental pathology Ph.D. program at the University of Virginia will inform ways to prevent neurological and vision changes astronauts experience as a result of spaceflight.


“We’re wanting to see how our immune system responds to spaceflight on a molecular level,” he said. “As we push for deep space exploration, as we go to Mars and beyond, we don’t quite have an excellent understanding of how that’s going to influence astronaut health.”


Experiments by Olivieri’s colleagues are on their way to deep space, 40,000 miles beyond the moon as part of the Artemis I mission. Sensors onboard the mission’s Orion spacecraft will measure how radiation and microgravity affect plants, yeast and humanoid mannequins. The data collected will complement what Olivieri can glean from his research in artificial microgravity conditions on Earth.


The Road to NASA


Olivieri’s path to this once-in-a-lifetime chance to make his mark on spaceflight wasn’t always clear.


On a fifth-grade field trip to the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego-raised Olivieri solved math and science problems in a mock Mission Control exhibit, hoping he could one day contribute to the real thing. He decided to major in biology as a pre-med student at SDSU, passionate but unsure how a life sciences focus might lead to a career at NASA.


Reading an article on how nanotubes could be used to eliminate cancer cells turned out to be the unexpected key to unlocking his dream job. A materials science team at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia was investigating how those nanotubes could be used to protect astronauts from radiation on long space voyages.


Olivieri’s interest in the biomedical applications of the nanotubes aligned with the project leader’s goals, securing his first role with NASA — still to his disbelief.


“It takes a lot of different people looking at things from their own unique lens to really tackle these complex issues,” Olivieri said. “Regardless of your background, NASA does an excellent job of putting an emphasis on constructing a team that allows everyone to bring in their unique expertise.”


Beyond Biology


“People will often ask, ‘Why do you want to spend so much money going to the moon, going to Mars?’” Olivieri said. “Besides the fact that humans are innately curious and we want to continue to explore, we have a lot of spinoff technologies that arise from the really cool research that NASA’s doing.”


The nanotubes research project that he worked on could potentially improve the safety of firefighter suits because of the tubes’ high heat capacity. Scratch-resistant and UV-ray shielding visors for astronauts were adapted into sunglasses. And NASA algorithms have helped GPS evolve into the system Olivieri used to find where he was supposed to be at Kennedy Space Center — on his first day and for the evening of the Artemis I launch.


When asked what he would tell his 10-year-old space-obsessed self, Olivieri said: “Continue to work hard because you have no idea what kind of opportunities you get from just being someone who is driven, focused and motivated.”