As NASA works to once again send humans to the moon, one of those helping lead the mission’s planning decisions is South Carolina native and Clemson graduate Vanessa Wyche.
Wyche was named last month as Deputy Director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. She is the first African-American to hold the position.
“I had no idea I would end up where I am,” Wyche said. She received both her undergraduate and Master’s bioengineering degrees from Clemson.
She said she followed her older brother to the school at an 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.
Wyche first 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… 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 Texas man who was attending law school in D.C. . He asked her to marry him.
“That’s how I ended up in Houston,” she said. Johnson Space Center is NASA’s home for 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 said although educational opportunities for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) were limited, she had a supportive family who helped her learn what she needed to know to get to Clemson.
“I figured out early on that I liked figuring out how things worked,” she said. “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 backyard and that was where I got my love for science.”
Wyche said geography does not have to limit educational opportunities.
“Apply for programs where you can get exposure in summertime,” she recommended. “Visit the museums. There’s many opportunities (across South Carolina). Just try to get there and take advantage of them.”
And now, Wyche and her colleagues are shooting for the moon. NASA is working with partners Boeing and SpaceX on two vehicles which could eventually take astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil.
“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.”