Johnson Space Center’s New Director Leads Where No Black Woman Has Led Before

Vanessa Wyche, a 30-year NASA veteran, directs an organization whose current missions include sending astronauts to the International Space Station and returning humans to the Moon.

By Shelly BrisbinJuly 12, 2021 12:52 pm,

NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston has a new director. Vanessa Wyche has risen through the ranks at NASA for more than 30 years as an engineer and an administrator. Wyche is the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. She oversees 11,000 civil service employees and contractors working on human spaceflight missions.

Wyche told Texas Standard that in addition to planned missions to the Moon and beyond, along with development of new space vehicles, JSC continues to launch missions to the International Space Station, or ISS. She says that crewed missions headed for the ISS are now being launched from American soil. A launch in 2020 was the first crewed mission launched from the United States since 2011.

Wyche says she’s excited about NASA’s partnerships with SpaceX and Boeing on missions to the ISS, and eventually to the Moon.

“SpaceX has been successful at having our astronauts fly onboard their spacecraft, and Boeing will have an uncrewed test a little bit later this summer, maybe this month,” Wyche said.

Having private partnerships gives NASA two ways to get people and materials to the ISS, she says.

NASA is also partnering with SpaceX on a portion of the Artemis program, which will send humans to the Moon for the first time since 1971. Astronauts will fly the Orion vehicle to the vicinity of the Moon and use the SpaceX Human Landing System to reach the surface.

“And then we will have a platform there called ‘Gateway,'” she said. “Gateway will allow us to have our astronauts transfer to that platform, and then they will get on the Human Landing System.”

Wyche says partnering with companies like SpaceX frees JSC to work on other projects, including the Space Launch System.

“That rocket is going to be bigger than the rocket we had for Apollo,” she said. “That rocket will allow us the capability to carry a lot of cargo to the Moon. And then, eventually, we’ll be able to use that to go to Mars.”

Wyche began her career at NASA as an engineer, managing several space shuttle missions. But she says though she never applied to be an astronaut, she was inspired by dreams of going to space. Now she says she’s hooked on being able to send people and experiments into space.

“My interest was actually from ‘Star Trek,’ and seeing all of those people, including Nichelle Nichols’ character as Lt. Uhura, and thinking one day I would be her on the bridge,” Wyche said.

Wyche says working her way through the ranks of NASA to reach the JSC directorship has, first and foremost, given her a focus on safety.

“The other thing that informs me is the leadership, and what it takes to lead a team,” she said. “And part of that may be understanding that diversity of thought and of personnel is very important for us to bring everything to bear.”

Wyche says the people at JSC represent the most fun part of her job.

“Everyone that I know comes to work excited about what we’re doing, the mission that we have. And so it’s humbling to be the leader of an organization with such great talent and respect for one another,” she said.

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