He’s a real ‘rocket man’

First slide

In December, students at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington watched their four-cubic-inch satellite, a CubeSat dubbed STMSat-1, weighing less than three pounds and packed with a payload of scientific experiments, launched to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). In March, the ISS will deploy the CubeSat into orbit to conduct experiments that will be shared with students around the world.

Antonio Elias had a distant but important hand in the launch. His employer, Orbital ATK, transported the CubeSat in their Cygnus spacecraft, dubbed the SS Deke Slayton II.

Elias has been with Orbital since 1986 and has watched the private space business grow into a multi-billion dollar industry, with the two largest players being Orbital and Elon Musk's SpaceX.

Antonio, and wife, Mirella, have been parishioners of St. Luke Church in McLean since 1986, and Mirella has taught religious education there.

A diplomat's son

Antonio, 66, was born in Galveston, Texas, to a Spanish diplomat father and mother. In an unusual diplomatic twist, even though he was born in the United States, he was not a U.S. citizen, but a citizen of Spain. He was later naturalized; the official at the ceremony said that he had never naturalized a person born in the United States before.

After the assignment in Galveston, the family moved to a diplomatic post in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he received his first holy Communion. The family moved to other posts before getting what the family considered a plum assignment in Rome in 1962, just as Vatican II was starting.

He met Mirella when they were students at the Cervantes Lyceum in Rome - a middle and high school of about 150 students. He eventually asked her out on a date, and that developed into a friendship. The lyceum had a fifth year, a sort of college preparation year. There were two students, he and Mirella.

"Every day we have a full class reunion," he laughed.

The two loved Rome.

"Rome has left an indelible mark on us," she said.

When Antonio and Mirella graduated from the Lyceum, Antonio's father wanted him to study engineering in Madrid, which he did for a while, but he hated it.

At MIT in Boston

Antonio wanted to study in the United States. His father finally relented, and the young man applied to one school - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

His acceptance, he insists, was because they didn't understand the Italian grading system. The school wasn't sure how to classify him as a student, so he started as a sophomore. After one semester he earned enough credits to be classified a junior. After another semester, he was classified as a senior. After three semesters he graduated.

He returned to Rome to visit with Mirella, a long-distance romance that culminated in marriage in 1972 at St. John Before the Latin Gate Church in Rome. The couple moved back to Boston where they raised four children.

Antonio went on to earn master's and doctorate degrees in aerospace engineering at MIT. He began teaching and doing research at Draper Laboratories in Cambridge, Mass., for MIT, where he worked on the Space Shuttle, eventually becoming an assistant professor in 1980.

He was shocked when he was up for a tenured position in 1986, but did not get one. Tenure offers job protection in the academic world, and when you're passed over, you're expected to leave.

At Orbital Sciences in Fairfax

Antonio had a young family and was getting desperate, when he received a phone call.

"You don't know me," said the caller. "But I know you."

It was an opening line that got his attention.

The caller was a former student at MIT, Dave Thompson. He and two friends, Bruce Ferguson and Scott Webster founded Orbital Sciences in 1982.

"We're here in Washington, building a rocket," Thompson said.

Thompson wanted him to join his team as the chief engineer.

The family moved to McLean, even though Mirella did not want to leave Boston.

At Orbital, he rose through the ranks, from chief engineer to vice-president of engineering then senior vice-president to his current position as chief technology officer.

Antonio worked on the Pegasus booster, and led design teams for Orbital's APEX and SeaStar satellites and a hypersonic research vehicle.

Antonio sees no conflict between science and religion. The faith of the Elias family has always been a primary focus. Mirella calls the church her second home.

"I don't know how I would get by, if I was not Catholic," she said.

Faith, said Antonio, is the belief in God. Religion, on the other hand, "is the social manifestation of faith."

For Antonio, "God is obvious."

Would Antonio like to visit the ISS? "Of course," he said with no hesitation. But it's an idea that makes Mirella wince.

But even without an orbital trip in his future, he has no plans on retiring any time soon.

"I'm having too much fun," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016