Rocket Science

June 2018
Written By: 
Ashley Daniels

We follow NASA’s Vanessa Wyche and her trailblazing success

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PHOTO: (left) Wyche receives a Director’s Innovation Award, presented by Mark Geyer, JSC’s Deputy Center Director, and Dr. Ellen Ochoa, JSC’s Center Director; (right) Conway native Vanessa Wyche is the director of exploration integration and science at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.When Vanessa Wyche was a young girl, gazing with wide eyes up into the Carolina blue skies that still tug at her heartstrings from her current home deep in the heart of Texas, little did she know she’d be helping NASA send astronauts beyond those skies and into the stars.

 

Then again, she was always known to shoot for the stars regardless of any constraints or challenges she faced on her flight path, eventually becoming director of exploration integration and science at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.

Wyche, born in 1964, grew up in Conway as the youngest of five children and says she had an “exploratory youth” being raised by parents who were both educators. Mom taught first grade and Dad was an English teacher, then guidance counselor, then ultimately assistant principal at Conway High School.

“That had a strong influence on me as a child, because my parents always stressed the importance of education,” she says. “For us, we didn’t have TV during the week—only on weekends. So, in terms of finding a way to entertain yourself, that required reading or doing something with your hands. I’d spend a lot of time outside thinking about animals and the environment, reading about zoology in encyclopedias. We didn’t have the Internet back then!”

Wyche’s parents were also heavily involved as leaders within the local Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts chapters, which only heightened Wyche’s love for hands-on work in the great outdoors. She’d also spend summers with her grandfather on his family farm.

“Unlike most girls, I was into bugs and worms,” she laughs. “And I’d follow my grandfather around when he was working on the tractor, figure out how to lift things with pulleys using physics—thinking about the cause and effect of things.”

At the recent Coastal Carolina University Women in Philanthropy & Leadership Conference in Myrtle Beach, Wyche shared the story of a tinkering experiment gone wrong. Although she had become quite the expert at fixing things, one attempt at fixing her grandmother’s TV unsupervised didn’t go quite as planned and left her, let’s say, shocked. But it also left her with a newly stimulated curiosity.

Wyche’s passion and prowess in the subjects of math and science would continue to launch her closer to her career path, despite the fact that there were no science labs in the elementary and middle schools at the time, nor STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) topic camps. She says her biology teacher was a strong influence on her, suggesting she seriously think about going into the science field. And, after graduating from high school a year early, Wyche did.

After deciding with her parents that Clemson University was the better fit for her course of study (even though two of her siblings were University of South Carolina alumni), Wyche landed on Clemson’s campus at 17.

“I started there majoring in biochemistry and liked it, but I didn’t have a strong liking for the memorization of biology,” she says. “After talking to professors and finding that I liked the more analytical side of science, I switched to engineering and found my passion.”

Wyche went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in bioengineering from Clemson University.

Before she began working at NASA in 1989, she took a position at the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C., as a medical device evaluator, testing the effectiveness and safety of devices. A rewarding job post-graduation, but Wyche admits that the transfer to NASA’s JSC was a dream come true. And for the last three decades, it’s been a place where she’s soared and excelled.

Wyche started out as a project engineer, working with researchers at universities to develop biomedical hardware for experiments on space shuttle astronauts. That evolved into project manager over more hardware systems to be used in medical and microgravity experiments, which led to more leadership positions in human spaceflight systems engineering, including one as flight manager for several missions in the Space Shuttle Program and director of operations and test integrations in the Constellation Program. Wyche can say she had a hand in hardware that’s been flown on the space shuttle to the Russian Mir Space Station, as well as on missions to build the International Space Station. In her current rotational role as director of exploration integration and science, she’s pioneering human and robotic exploration of deep space, leading to missions to Mars.

“We will begin going back to the vicinity of the moon with the intent to return humans to the moon for exploration, followed by missions to Mars,” says Wyche.

Specific projects she’s heading up today to make that possible include the construction of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in Huntsville, Alabama, which will be the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built. When completed, the SLS will make it possible for astronauts to explore destinations far into the solar system. The team at JSC is also responsible for the testing of the Orion stage adaptor for the first flight of the SLS, which is planned for early 2020.

“We’re also working on how to have a cohesive plan to support NASA’s objective of helping the commercial partner industry, moon exploration and the international community,” says Wyche.

She reports, too, that JSC is also continuing their exploration and research on the surface of Mars, with the help of curiosity rovers, and on a human’s physical durability on Mars, with the help of the International Space Station.

“Yesterday, we had a successful spacewalk. It’s called extravehicular activity, or going external to the space station,” says Wyche. “We’re now needing to develop a space suit so that, when on another planet’s surface, the suit can withstand the environment and move around safely.”

Wyche’s nearly 30 years of accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed. Her NASA awards include a NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, two NASA Achievement Medals, a JSC Innovation Award, a 2014 Women@NASA award, a national 2016 Women Worth Watching honoree by Profiles in Diversity Journal, as well as being honored here in Myrtle Beach at the 2017 Celebration of Inspiring Women presented by Women in Philanthropy & Leadership at Coastal Carolina University.

How did she reach for and gain ground on the stars within NASA’s corporate ladder? In this male-dominated industry, not without confidence and tenacity in her DNA. Wyche says it’s been because of several factors—one being that curiosity that was piqued early as a young scientist around the house and not stifled by any unanswered questions.

“I think it’s about building a good reputation for being competent and getting the job done. When I’d apply for another position at JSC, people knew I would work hard.”

Wyche also says it’s about learning from mentors and those around you: “I’ve learned that not one person knows everything. It’s best to reach out and learn from others.”

And, she says, you can’t be afraid to fail. “Sometimes fear will cause one not to step out and do something different,” Wyche adds. “The worst thing that could happen is that you don’t get the job and you stay in the current position you’re in for a longer time. I didn’t get every opportunity that I applied for! You just have to have the confidence in yourself—that if you don’t get that ‘win,’ ask yourself what you can learn from it.”

That’s what she tries to instill in those she mentors, from elementary school age to professionals in a variety of industries.

“It’s important to let others know they’re not alone,” says Wyche. “We know there are times when you’re in a group of all men and the man says something, then the woman says something, but the man’s idea is a great idea. We talk about how you let them know it was your idea, and do that without getting frustrated or grumpy about it.”

For her outreach efforts to guide younger mentees, Wyche was featured in the January 2017 issue of Role Model Magazine. She helped form a partnership between JSC’s African American Employee Resources Group and the Port City Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, to sponsor an annual science fair at an underserved Houston elementary school. JSC engineers volunteer to help children design and conduct experiments and host the fair to inspire interest in the STEM fields.

Wyche is also a member of JSC’s Innovation and Inclusion Council and Co-Executive sponsor of “Emerge,” a JSC Employee Resource Group for early career employees. Her additional philanthropic endeavors include her membership in The Links, Incorporated, Port City Chapter; Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Houston Alumnae Chapter; Jack and Jill of America, Houston Chapter Associates; and the National Society of Black Engineers, serving as an executive sponsor of the JSC Chapter. As a member of Brentwood Baptist Church, she’s active in the Deacons’ Wives ministry and Fig Leaves ministry, which provides clothing to those in need.

If that’s not enough, she gives back to the scouting community that was a huge influence on her as a child by serving Brentwood’s Boy Scout Troop 500 as a Life-to-Eagle Scout coordinator. She’s coached and mentored more than 10 male teens in accomplishing their Eagle Scout rank.

Leisure time for Wyche, she says, still involves spending time in the outdoors and with husband, George Wyche, Jr., and son, George Wyche III, a recent graduate of Howard University. In fact, she said she was wearing her walking shoes during our phone interview, ready to go for a walk on a beautiful Texas day.

But when she returns to her hometown this summer, you’ll find her on the beaches she’s yearned for since moving away.

“That was my recharge place as a young girl,” says Wyche. “We have beaches here, but they’re not the same. There’s something about those Carolina blue skies … It’s a magical place and I love it.”

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PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF VANESSA WYCHE AND COASTAL CAROLINA UNIVERSITY