New Deputy Director of Johnson Space Center

It is Rocket Science for CU grad

South Carolina Radio Network
September 04, 2018 - 7:58 am



SEPTEMBER 4, 2018 BY RENEE SEXTON (South Carolina Radio Network)

As NASA works to send another human to the moon, one of the people involved in making decisions on the mission is South Carolina native and Clemson graduate Vanessa Wyche.

Official NASA Executive portrait of Vanessa Wyche

In August, Wyche was named as Deputy Director of NASA Johnson Space Center. She is the first African-American to hold the position.

“I had no idea I would end up where I am,” Wyche said. That’s because Wyche studied bioengineering. She received both her undergraduate and Master’s degrees from Clemson.

She said it was a pretty exciting time to be at the school because the football team had won the National Championship in 1981.

“I just had a great college life experience,” she said.

Her older brother majored in Chemical engineering at Clemson.

“That was how I got to Clemson in the first place,” she said.

After graduation Wyche went to Washington, D.C. to work for the Food and Drug Administration, still having no inkling she would work for NASA.

“I thought that was the best job ever because I was working on medical device evaluation and my bioengineering degree I was working on, at that time, lasers were coming into play for humans and ultrasounds and all different kinds of devices,” she said. “That was what I thought would be the end-all-be-all job.”

But then she met a young man from Houston who was attending law school in D.C. and he asked her to marry him.

“That’s how I ended up in Houston,” she said. Johnson Space Center is NASA’s home for its astronauts.

“I began the early part of my career working with astronauts, doing experiments on them with my bioengineering background, building hardware, flying my hardware in space. It’s been an awesome job, I can tell you, from day one,” she said.

That expertise in bioengineering helped NASA search for life on other planets.  While there, her responsibilities grew to include flight manager for space shuttle missions.

Wyche’s story started in Conway, South Carolina.

“We grew up watching Star Trek…but in terms of even thinking that working at NASA was a possibility, I didn’t even have that as a young kid.”

Wyche said although educational opportunities for science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — were limited, she had a supportive family who helped her learn what she needed to know to get to Clemson.

“I’m a proud graduate of Conway High School Class of 1981,” she said. “I did not have the advanced-advanced classes available to me but I took all of the classes that I could. My parents were very good on trying to get us involved with as much exposure as they could.”

“I figured out early on that I liked figuring out how things worked. And my brother got a chemistry set when he was probably in high school and I was maybe 10,12 years old. We just did experiments in the back yard and that was where I got my love for science and I never let my love for science and engineering go.”

In addition to the schools’ gifted and talented program, Wyche said she got a lot of support from her neighbors.

“The community had a community center and they exposed us to as much as they could.”

Wyche said geography doesn’t have to limit educational opportunities for kids.

“Apply for programs where you can get exposure in summertime,” she said. “Visit the museums. Across South Carolina, there’s many opportunities. Just try to get there and take advantage of them.”

“The fundamentals that you’re learning in elementary, middle and high school are going to propel you throughout your whole lifetime and do your very best in your schoolwork and you never know where it’s going to take you. You could end up being deputy director of NASA Johnson Space Center.”

And now, Wyche and her colleagues are shooting for the moon. Again.  NASA is working with partners Boeing and SpaceX on a vehicle for a manned mission to the moon.

“We’re going to start launching crew members from Florida very soon,” she said. “And then we’re going to start launching humans that will be going forward to the moon.”

Wyche encourages kids to reach beyond the moon.

“Don’t be afraid to go for your dreams, whatever it is that you have a desire.”

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