From Forbidden Planet to BEST Robotics, Lopez knows the breed

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Posted Thu, Oct 28, 2010

Jose Lopez, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, has a contagious love and excitement for aerospace engineering.  It started when he was young.
“Even when I was one and two, I was drawing airplanes,” Lopez says.  One of his earliest memories was going to see “Forbidden Planet,” the ‘Star Trek’ of my time, he fondly recalls.
Lopez left Puerto Rico at 18 to go to St. Louis University for an aerospace engineering degree. He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant when he graduated and was assigned to the University of Tennessee Space Institute to complete a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. On active duty for 10 years, he worked on military satellites, nuclear weapons, and the Minuteman and Peacekeeper ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles. He spent a year in Diyarbakir, Turkey before coming to Colorado in May of 1976, where he worked for Raytheon, formerly known as Hughes Aircraft Co.for 25 years before retiring.
Lopez is currently an affiliate professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver, where he teaches three classes: Intro to Space, Special Topics in Aerospace Science, and Advanced Energy Technology.   Lopez was asked to come to MSCD specifically to teach the Intro to Space class, which had never been offered. I n 2009, he prepared to develop an Orbital Mechanics class at Metro State by becoming STK (Satellite Took Kit) Certified — a process that  required taking a test for eight hours a day for two weeks.   STK is a software application made by Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI), used for modeling, engineering and operations of space, cyberspace, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), missile defense and electronic systems.  Five of his students are using it in a project for the AGI University Grant Competition. Last year, two of his students came in fourth place in the competition.  They used STK to visualize and analyze ancient monuments’ astronomical alignments. MSCDwas one of two American schools that was in the top six, the other was Purdue University, which won first place.
Aside from his classes, which Lopez says he sometimes spends six to seven hours preparing for, his most current project is the BEST Robotics high school competition. He is executive director of the newly established 41st hub, or Rocky Mountain Division, of the national BEST association. The hub is operated entirely by volunteers, the majority of which are friends of Lopez from Raytheon.  The Hub was established in February, and volunteers have since been conducting training, and raising money to prepare for the Fall 2010 competition, which kicked off on Sept. 18, in St.  Cajetan’s Center.
“It requires so much effort from so many people,” Lopez says.  “The past five or six months, we’ve done an incredible amount of work.”
The Rocky Mountain volunteers not only created a brand new hub, but accomplished what other hubs have had a year to complete.  Several schools will compete in the final competition, called ‘Game Day,’ which will be held at the Auraria Events Center on Oct. 30 from 12:30- 5 p.m.  In the competition, high schools teams design and build a radio-controlled robot from identical kits that were given off on Kick Off Day. The robots are timed as they accomplish a series of tasks.
This year 11 high schools will compete. The more money the hub is able to raise, the bigger the competition will get.  Lopez says that the Rocky Mountain hub operates differently than other hubs, because they don’t require the participating schools to raise money for the event, therefore giving poor schools just as much of a chance as wealthier schools.
“Hopefully we’ll get more minorities involved,” Lopez says. “We need m more sponsors.”
Although the unpaid position keeps Lopez busy, (“I need to slow down, I’m retired”, he says) he finds the time and energy he spends worthwhile and loves working with students.
“Encouraging kids to go into science, engineering and technology…. It’s very rewarding,” Lopez says.
After the busy couple of months he’s had, which included obtaining an $8,000 grant from NASA for the hub, Lopez is looking forward to the summer and spending more time with his family. He has a daughter, a MSCD student in the Vet Tech program, and a son, a lieutenant in the military, currently deployed in Iraq until March. He frequently makes trips to visit family and friends and has managed to maintain very close relationships with friends, schoolmates and co-workers over the years.  Several of the volunteers from Raytheon are people he’s known for 30 years.  And the executive director position of the Rocky Mountain BEST hub came to him from a long time friend of his.
Lopez also takes the whole month of June off to go off-roading with his retired Air Force buddies. This year, they’re going to Death Valley.
Lopez won’t have to wait a whole year to go off-roading though. On Nov. 6, when his Intro to Space class launches their individually designed, high altitude helium balloons equipped with a small data capturing device and a camera, they’ll spend the whole afternoon chasing them to their final landing spot. Last year, his class tracked them as far as Wyoming.
The balloons go 20 miles into their air.
Lopez himself has never flown a plane.
“I wanted to be a test pilot, but my eyesight got so bad in college,” Lopez says. He has soared to success in his field anyway, and is now dedicated to passing on opportunities for success s to students at MSCD and throughout the Denver Metro area.
“As long as I enjoy the students, I’ll keep doing it,” he says.

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