The Professor of Potrillo

The Professor of Potrillo

By Kayla McKiski

Jose Hurtado walked around Kilbourne Hole in a worn NASA hat, flying a drone with his students, answering geology questions and offering slices of his grapefruit to anyone in the field.

Hurtado, a 43-year-old geology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), is a RIS4E collaborator whose gold-plated resume and happenstance led him to the Potrillo volcanic fields of New Mexico.

“I take my undergraduate students here every year, and I take my graduate students here for doing research,” Hurtado said. “It’s a great place to teach field geology. There are processes here that we don’t quite understand and it offers us the opportunity to understand those in the context not just of earth, but of other planets.”

Hurtado was recruited to the RIS4E project because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the area. He and his students served as informal hosts for the Potrillo visitors, dispensing ice-cold water bottles along with geological information about the desert.

Teaching geosciences was not Hurtado’s plan when he was young. It happened on the way to pursuing his first love. “I had always wanted to be involved with space exploration and be an astronaut,” he said.

After graduating as valedictorian from his high school in Fairfield, Calif., in 1992, Hurtado went to the California Institute of Technology, where he planned to study astronomy and aerospace engineering. But when an elective lottery landed him randomly in an introductory geology class, he discovered a new passion: Rocks.

Hurtado eventually earned a Ph.D. in geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working on the movement of tectonic plates in Nepal and structural research, studying rock deformation, in Greenland. It was at MIT where his Ph.D. advisor, Kip Hodges, introduced him to Dean Eppler, a senior scientist at NASA (and now a fellow member of the RIS4E team).

The connection led Hurtado to conduct postdoctoral research at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., working on Earth and Mars remote sensing projects for the space agency.

Around the same time, Hurtado’s officemate at MIT had a connection to the chairman of the geology department at UTEP and suggested he apply for a teaching position there. Hurtado hesitated—he had his mind on a career at NASA. “I wasn’t too excited for the professor position but it afforded flexibility,” Hurtado said. “It was a pretty significant fork in the road.”

He took the university job and it turned out to be the right move: It led to a series of opportunities with NASA. He was an integral member of the space agency’s Desert Research and Technology Studies team, nicknamed Desert RATS. He instructed NASA’s field geologic training courses, some for the 2009 astronaut candidate class. He’s used Skype to teach field courses in real time and often brings his UTEP students alongside him.

“Jose is a catalyst to my future,” said Armando Trejo, one of the geology students Hurtado brought to Kilbourne Hole for the RIS4E field work. “He is the guidance that a student like me needs and I’m thankful for him.”

Though Hurtado enjoys teaching, he still has dreams of going into space. He has applied to be an astronaut four times, and gotten father than most.

“The first time, I submitted my application the night before it was due,” Hurtado said. “I didn’t get very far. They sent me a postcard that said ‘Thanks for applying’.”

Hurtado has since made it to the interview stage three times, and though he hasn’t made the final cut yet he’s still focused on that goal. He’s undergone a training program that prepares researchers to cope with the rigors of spaceflight. And in 2010 he became one of eight inaugural flight members of Astronauts for Hire, a nonprofit organization that trains commercial astronauts for companies such as Virgin Galactic.

Hurtado plans to apply for the next astronaut class in a few years. In the meantime, he’ll enjoy teaching students, brewing IPA’s and stouts, flying drones and planes, and spending time with his girlfriend, son, and their animals—two yorkies, two large mixed breeds, one chihuhua, a parrot, a fish and a turtle.

By Kayla McKiski

Jose Hurtado walked around Kilbourne Hole in a worn NASA hat, flying a drone with his students, answering geology questions and offering slices of his grapefruit to anyone in the field.

Hurtado, a 43-year-old geology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), is a RIS4E collaborator whose gold-plated resume and happenstance led him to the Potrillo volcanic fields of New Mexico.

“I take my undergraduate students here every year, and I take my graduate students here for doing research,” Hurtado said. “It’s a great place to teach field geology. There are processes here that we don’t quite understand and it offers us the opportunity to understand those in the context not just of earth, but of other planets.”

Hurtado was recruited to the RIS4E project because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the area. He and his students served as informal hosts for the Potrillo visitors, dispensing ice-cold water bottles along with geological information about the desert.

Teaching geosciences was not Hurtado’s plan when he was young. It happened on the way to pursuing his first love. “I had always wanted to be involved with space exploration and be an astronaut,” he said.

After graduating as valedictorian from his high school in Fairfield, Calif., in 1992, Hurtado went to the California Institute of Technology, where he planned to study astronomy and aerospace engineering. But when an elective lottery landed him randomly in an introductory geology class, he discovered a new passion: Rocks.

Hurtado eventually earned a Ph.D. in geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working on the movement of tectonic plates in Nepal and structural research, studying rock deformation, in Greenland. It was at MIT where his Ph.D. advisor, Kip Hodges, introduced him to Dean Eppler, a senior scientist at NASA (and now a fellow member of the RIS4E team).

The connection led Hurtado to conduct postdoctoral research at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., working on Earth and Mars remote sensing projects for the space agency.

Around the same time, Hurtado’s officemate at MIT had a connection to the chairman of the geology department at UTEP and suggested he apply for a teaching position there. Hurtado hesitated—he had his mind on a career at NASA. “I wasn’t too excited for the professor position but it afforded flexibility,” Hurtado said. “It was a pretty significant fork in the road.”

He took the university job and it turned out to be the right move: It led to a series of opportunities with NASA. He was an integral member of the space agency’s Desert Research and Technology Studies team, nicknamed Desert RATS. He instructed NASA’s field geologic training courses, some for the 2009 astronaut candidate class. He’s used Skype to teach field courses in real time and often brings his UTEP students alongside him.

“Jose is a catalyst to my future,” said Armando Trejo, one of the geology students Hurtado brought to Kilbourne Hole for the RIS4E field work. “He is the guidance that a student like me needs and I’m thankful for him.”

Though Hurtado enjoys teaching, he still has dreams of going into space. He has applied to be an astronaut four times, and gotten father than most.

“The first time, I submitted my application the night before it was due,” Hurtado said. “I didn’t get very far. They sent me a postcard that said ‘Thanks for applying’.”

Hurtado has since made it to the interview stage three times, and though he hasn’t made the final cut yet he’s still focused on that goal. He’s undergone a training program that prepares researchers to cope with the rigors of spaceflight. And in 2010 he became one of eight inaugural flight members of Astronauts for Hire, a nonprofit organization that trains commercial astronauts for companies such as Virgin Galactic.

Hurtado plans to apply for the next astronaut class in a few years. In the meantime, he’ll enjoy teaching students, brewing IPA’s and stouts, flying drones and planes, and spending time with his girlfriend, son, and their animals—two yorkies, two large mixed breeds, one chihuhua, a parrot, a fish and a turtle.