Giant Leaps for Mankind: NASA’s Dr. Janet Kavandi, ’80, talks next generation of space travel

It’s a sobering view, seeing Planet Earth from space. The effects of deforestation and air pollution, the melting of ice sheets. From 200 miles above, one can see it all.

On the other hand, it’s also breathtaking. There’s the majesty of a sunrise, the outlines of the continents, and powerful storms moving over the surface.

“It’s hard to express, and I wish people could see it so they could understand the beauty and fragility of our planet,” says Dr. Janet Kavandi.

A veteran of three Space Shuttle missions (33 days in space, 13.1 million miles and 535 Earth orbits, to be exact) and a 1980 graduate of Missouri Southern, Kavandi still can’t suppress the smile of a young girl who once dreamed of traveling through space.

“I wanted to work for NASA since I was a child,” she says. “I wanted to fly in space. That was the ultimate goal any human being could have, in my opinion, so I’m very fortunate.”

Ignition sequence

It was a big dream for the former Carthage resident, who says she was drawn to “Star Trek” and almost anything having to do with space travel and exploration.

“I knew what I would ultimately like to do, but I wasn’t sure it was a possible reality at the time,” she says. Still, she never took her eye off of the possibilities the future held.

“I had a favorite instructor in high school in Carthage, who inspired me to start thinking about a degree in chemistry. I also liked astronomy and archeology, but I thought chemistry might offer the best and most practical sort of career for someone who was interested in the sciences.”

She soon found a home in Missouri Southern’s chemistry department. She cites the late Dr. Larry Albright and Dr. Melvyn Mosher as inspiring her to keep shooting for the stars.

Kavandi kept up a fast-paced schedule, putting her on track obtain her bachelor’s degree in chemistry in three years. Describing herself as “the studious type,” there wasn’t much in the way of down time on campus, although she did meet her husband, John, in the dorms.

After leaving MSSU, Kavandi pursued her master’s degree at the University of Missouri-Rolla and her Ph.D. from the University of Washington-Seattle. Her career took her from Joplin’s Eagle-Picher Industries to Boeing before NASA selected her as an astronaut candidate in 1994.

She served as a mission specialist aboard the Discovery in 1998, docking with the Russian Space Station Mir. The Endeavour in 2000 found Kavandi and the other crew members using a new launch system to produce a high-resolution digital topography of the Earth’s surface. Her final mission came in 2001 aboard the Atlantis, which traveled to the International Space Station for maintenance and the installation of a new airlock.

Back on Earth, her career with NASA continued to flourish. She served as deputy chief of the Astronaut Office, and later as deputy director and then director of Flight Crew Operations at Johnson Space Center.

 

‘Space is always a mystery’

Today, as director of NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, Kavandi still holds fast to the mysteries, possibilities and grand vision for the future of human space travel.

One of 10 NASA centers across the country, and one of just four dedicated to research, the Glenn Center helps pave the way for space flight and aeronautics. From critical work on power supplies, propulsion and communications systems, the center serves as a high-tech test facility for current and next generation spacecraft.

Take the Orion, for example.

A model of the spacecraft sits behind Kavandi in the conference room just down the hall from her office in the center’s administrative wing. The bullet-shaped capsule will serve as the springboard for mankind’s next push into the final frontier.

“We’re also in the first stages of planning an orbiting platform around the moon, and designing the propulsion element for an eventual habitat,” she says. “From there, landers will make routine excursions to the moon’s surface.

“Ultimately, we’ll take that platform and use it to push on to Mars from there. It’s a really good plan to test out our systems on the surface of the moon, which is only four days away. If something breaks, we can bring it back home to see why it broke, fix it and make it more robust for when we take it to Mars, which is much farther away – a whole year.

“We’ll create a habitat on Mars. Beyond that, our probes can take us even deeper into our own solar system.”

But first, the Orion will be the centerpiece of Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), an unmanned mission that will push the envelope by traveling farther than any other spacecraft thus far – thousands of miles beyond the moon over the course of its three-week flight.

The Glenn Center’s research facility, which includes the world’s largest vacuum chamber, is putting the Orion through a battery of tests designed to make EM-1 a reality.

But not all of the work done by the 3,200 scientists and engineers employed at the center is focused on the stars.

Given its position directly adjacent to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, it’s hard to forget the center’s importance to the future of aeronautics in general. Research conducted at the facility is paving the way for the craft that will take the general populace from Point A to Point B.

“A lot of the testing going on here is on the aeronautics side,” says Kavandi. “We’re looking at hybrid electric aircraft design, and possibly fully electric aircraft design. We’re also researching energy storage, power distribution systems and more energy-efficient regular combustion engines.”

As the center’s director, she says it’s her privilege to supervise operations and manage senior staff to “try to enable all these really intelligent people to do the creative work that allows us to do the groundbreaking things that NASA is known for.”

Kavandi says the excitement of playing an integral role in NASA’s past, present and future – as an astronaut and now an administrator – hasn’t faded.

“Sometimes when you get into the details of doing your daily job you can (momentarily) forget,” she says. “But then someone will come up and ask to get a picture with you or talk and it’s, ‘Oh, that’s right … I did do that.’

“People still appreciate the specialty of that experience and want to share it with you. Space is always a mystery. As humans, we’ve only explored a very small part of one solar system and only gone as far as the moon … one giant leap for mankind, but pretty small steps so far.”

Ads