From Southern to Space: Our interview with Dr. Janet Kavandi


Janet L. Kavandi, STS-104 mission specialist, looks over the Canadarm2, Space Station Remote Manipulator System, control station in the Destiny laboratory during STS-104’s visit to the International Space Station on July 16, 2001. 

Matt Barney

Recent films involving space travel, such as Interstellar, Gravity, and The Martian, portray female characters as astronauts, commanders, and specialists with the capability to endure the same missions as their male counterparts. But most women, (or men, for that matter) can only imagine what it would be like to actually visit space.

However, this fiction is Dr. Janet Kavandi’s reality. The 1980 Missouri Southern graduate

logged more than 33 days in space, traveling more than 13.1 million miles after being selected by NASA in December 1994 as a member of the 15th class of U.S. astronauts.

Today, the former astronaut oversees an annual budget of approximately $625 million and more than 3,200 civil service and sup- port contractor employees as director of NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

At 57, she still comes across as having the enthusiasm of a college student–this for a woman whose life has ascended to extraordinary and unprecedented heights. Kavandi has kept her life on fast-forward and her focus on the future, starting from

her earliest days growing up in Carthage, Mo. Her list of accomplishments is extensive. After earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry, she received a Master of Science degree in chemistry from Missouri University of Science and Technology and her doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Washington in Seattle. She graduated valedictorian in 1977 from Carthage Senior High School, getting a full-ride scholarship to Southern. “Missouri Southern was a fabulous place for an undergrad program,” said Kavandi. “What was really awesome about it was the professors and the small size of the classes.” 

Kavandi was able to speak with her instructors any time she needed help or had questions.

“They were always available, which is tough to do at a large university,” she said. “You don’t have that access to faculty because the class sizes are so large and many times the professors are busy doing research or writing grants and don’t have time for students. It was a great environment.”

Kavandi believes it is imperative that girls and young women get involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, from an early age.

“It’s a lot better than it used to be considering what I felt when I was in school, but I was fortunate,” she said

Kavandi believes some things make a big difference in girls’ lives. One is that they are encouraged at home without any bias from parents that “this is not something that girls do,” which she says is critical for cultural change to happen.

“Parents need to treat both genders the same with respect to what their interests and aptitudes are,” she said. “I’ve heard and seen a lot of girls who were discouraged because their parents did not feel it was appropriate; that is a problem.”

The other issue, as she sees it, is teacher bias. Based on how they were raised, some teachers may have a gender bias in what they con- sider to be appropriate roles for children.

“Girls may want to go into a certain field, but if they are not getting the encouragement from a teacher, then there’s a lot less chance that they’ll go into a particular kind of field,” Kavandi said.

Before her current role, Kavandi spent 20- plus years at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where she served as the director of Flight Crew Operations. In this role, she observed a lot more women in leadership positions.

“NASA attracts a lot of strong-minded women who don’t care what society thinks,” she said.

Kavandi began thinking about going to space as a young child and was considering NASA by the time high school rolled around. Her uncle worked for the agency, helping her to realize it could be an opportunity for her.

After graduating from Southern, Kavandi took a job at Eagle-Pitcher as an engineer in new battery development, followed by a stint in the Power Systems Technology Department of Boeing Defense, Space & Security in Seattle, the company that paid for her to get her Ph.D. Soon after, she applied to the NASA flight school and was accepted into the astronaut corps, a process that would forever change her.

“The training process that you go through to achieve that goal, the teamwork and cooperation that is required, the incredibly smart and accomplished people that you work who have such lofty goals, it was something you never forget,” she said. “All that combined with

it culminating in that space flight where you get to go experience zero gravity, the views of the earth from space–it was breathtaking,” she said.

From the soaring and celestial heights of the

International Space Station, Kavandi says the human impact on the earth is evident. The de- forestation, water pollution, and other environ- mental factors that are driving the controversial

debate on global climate change on the ground are especially apparent from above, she said. 

Janet Kavandi, a 1980 Missouri Southern graduate, became NASA Glenn Research Center’s first female director and its first director to have flown in space on March 14, 2016. The Cleveland, Ohio-based Glenn Research Center is developing several technologies for the Orion mission to Mars and beyond.

“Janet has demonstrated extraordinary leadership throughout her NASA career, from her spaceflights to her continued dedication to our mission at the Johnson Space Center and Glenn,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a press release issued by NASA. “I know she’ll bring that same excellence to bear on Glenn’s critical role in our journey to Mars.”

In that role, Kavandi is working on the funding needed to run the center, along with being in charge of all the projects and technical work they are doing there. She compares it to being the mayor of her own little town. 

“You make sure everything happens that enables all the technical people to do their jobs,” she said.

According to Kavandi, one of the major projects currently underway at Glenn includes the testing for the Orion Service Module, a component provided by the European Space Agency.

The module is one two integral parts of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV) which, according to NASA, is intended to carry a crew of four astronauts to destinations at or beyond low Earth orbit. Orion, currently under development by NASA for launch on the Space Launch System, is intended to help with human exploration of asteroids and Mars and to retrieve crew or supplies from the ISS if needed.

One of Kavandi’s Ohio facilities is responsible for the environmental testing of the module. The group is assessing environmental shaking. The team has just completed vibration table and reverberant acoustic testing and will soon begin vacuum chamber testing.

“We have to put the vehicle through all the tests on the ground to make sure they hold up and won’t fall apart during launch or once there in space,” she said. 

According to Kavandi, Orion will have one final unmanned test flight in the next two years before launching the crewed flight in 2021.

“This will be the first mission that would go back to the vicinity of the moon in a really long time [1972],” said Kavandi.  “This one will also have the capability to go to Mars … which is the destination to be. Now there is a chance with the transition to the new administration that our actions and our destination could change, but we’re hoping not. There’s been a lot of work that’s gone into this, and we want to make sure we can finish what we started.”

However, Kavandi said that concerns about a change in direction due to a new administration have, and always will be, a part of being a federal agency.

“It’s just part of life in the government,” she said.

The good news is that private space companies such as Space X, Orbital ATK, and Boeing could step in to fill any potential gap. However, despite the recent growth and popularity of these companies, Kavandi believes there is still a strict safety process that any entity that wants to go to space must go through. 

“You need a lot of high energy propellant to get off the planet, there’s just no way around that,” she said.  “To be able to do that and to control it very carefully, you have to be incredibly thorough to make sure that accidents like what we have seen don’t happen again.”

Kavandi believes these companies are still going through the process of learning how careful they have to be.

“They’re getting smarter all the time and slowly getting the experience we’ve developed over 50 years,” she said. “They’ve only had a few years to develop, so they’re still pretty young.” 

Kavandi isn’t only working on the space program. The other half of Glenn’s work is in aeronautics. Her facilities are researching how to make jet engines more effective by improving their fuel efficiency, loudness, and cost. They are also working to reduce ice buildup on the aircraft, which she calls a fatal problem. The Glenn Research Center is also developing a concept for a hybrid electric aircraft design that would increase the electrical components and decrease the need for a carbon-burning engine, reducing emissions at altitude, meaning less air pollution.

Kavandi has advice for any Southern student who wants to get involved in the aerospace industry.

“You want to be good at what you do; you have to be an excellent student and be a perfectionist because there is no room for mistakes in this field,” she said. “People that work in aerospace do have that satisfaction knowing that what they do makes a huge impact in society, and they can take a lot of pride in that. This is the area that I’ve always been interested in and wanted to work in, so it’s part of my natural progression to come here and do this kind of work. I would say you’d want to do it because you really liked the subject and felt passionate about making great things happen.”

Kavandi feels fortunate that she made the correct choice in life.

“When I go home in the evenings after a really long day, I truly feel like I’ve done something that’s bigger than most people get to do in life every day,” she said. “The things I get to contribute to society are really significant, and they’ve helped millions of people, and I don’t know everyone else gets to feel that way about their job.”