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Rocket Woman: Vanessa Ellerbe Wyche ’85, M ’87

NASA is working on sending astronauts back to the moon in 2024. Wyche will be there every step of the way.VANESSA ELLERBE WYCHE ’85, M ’87

Excitement sneaks into Vanessa Wyche’s voice as she talks about the upcoming Artemis program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s 2024 directive that will see astronauts set foot on the moon once again.

“Our intent is to go and have infrastructure in place that would allow additional capabilities on the surface of the moon,” she says. Those additional capabilities include setting up a small gateway platform that will act as a checkpoint for future missions to Mars.

As the deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Wyche has a lot to do before then. One major priority is Orion — the spacecraft on track to return to the lunar surface.

“Having spacecraft that are able to withstand going from Earth to the lunar vicinity and returning is very important,” she says. “We’ve not done that since Apollo, so having the right technologies and the right testing are what our workforce is responsible for laying out.”

Aside from overseeing construction of Orion, Wyche’s responsibilities include monitoring the International Space Station and the Human Research program (which investigates how humans might survive for longer periods of time in space) as well as working with commercial partners, like Boeing and SpaceX, to develop vehicles that will transport astronauts to and from the space station. Wyche was named deputy director in 2018, but her career with NASA has spanned nearly three decades. After graduating with a bachelor’s and master’s in bioengineering from Clemson, Wyche headed to Washington, D.C., where she worked in the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Device Evaluation. When she and her husband moved to Houston, she found work at NASA as a project engineer, designing flight hardware. Since then, she’s held multiple leadership positions and earned two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals and two NASA Outstanding Leadership Medals.

When she’s not at Johnson Space Center, Wyche is championing STEM in her community. For the past six years, NASA has partnered with The Links, Incorporated to bring a science fair to a local elementary school. NASA employees visit the school and mentor the children on their projects, while the nonprofit provides the supplies and resources to put on the fair.

“The carrot, the way to get all the kids to participate,” says Wyche, “is that if they do their project — no matter how good or bad — they get a field trip to NASA.”

Recently the program has expanded to another local school, which faces even more challenges. Many of its students are destitute.

“But the surprising thing is that those kids were the most excited about being able to do a science project,” Wyche says. “I’m hoping to be able to continue to support both schools, and my longterm goal is to see if we can expand this further.”

Wyche’s work in STEM outreach comes from a place of gratitude for NASA’s commitment to future generations — and also a place of reflection about her own career, one she describes as “awesome. I cannot begin to tell you just how awesome.”

Wyche named deputy director of Johnson Space Center

Vanessa Ellerbe Wyche ’85, M ’87 remembers studying hard at Clemson and the way campus leaders mentored her, especially when one chemistry professor encouraged her to trust herself when she was struggling: “I remember telling him that I wasn’t quite understanding something. He told me that I just needed to step back, take a break, and it was going to come to me. And it did.”

Vanessa Wyche

Vanessa Wyche visited Clemson University in February to help PEER & WISE celebrate its 30th anniversary.

Now, after a career with NASA spanning nearly three decades, she’s leading the way as the deputy director of Johnson Space Center in Houston, becoming the first African-American to serve in the position when she started in August 2018. Working alongside director Mark Geyer, Wyche is responsible for 10,000 civil service and contract employees at Johnson Space Center and White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

NASA looks to Clemson research stars for answers to Mars mission

Psychology professors, Tom Britt and Marissa Shuffler at Planetarium in Kinard Hall.

Psychology professors, Tom Britt and Marissa Shuffler at Planetarium in Kinard Hall.

A three-year, 70-million mile space voyage takes some serious planning. And the world’s largest space agency has turned to Clemson in preparing for the first-ever manned mission to Mars in 2030.

In laying the groundwork for this marathon adventure, NASA has tapped Clemson psychology 
professors Tom Britt and Marissa Shuffler to make recommendations on the health and performance of astronauts for the 36-month journey. Britt and Shuffler are familiar faces to government-funded research, with both having worked on U.S. Department of Defense projects.

Both researchers are in the first phase of study for the Mars mission, with Britt exploring the issue of meaningful work as a potential antidote to extended boredom in isolation, while Shuffler focuses on the dynamics of multiple teams working together in multi-team systems composed of astronauts and a myriad of international ground personnel.

Even though the maiden voyage to Mars is 15 years away, design work has begun on Orion, the space capsule. The command module is estimated to have less than 320 cubic feet of habitable space and is capable of handling two to six crew members. Britt said the close quarters present many challenges to the astronauts, given the length of the mission — a year traveling to and from Mars and two years living on the red planet.

“The initial research will look at what can offset the monotony and boredom of being confined in a small space for such a length of time, not to mention the psychological effects of extended isolation,” Britt said. “The first phase of the study will provide an analysis about previous research and the operational assessment of astronauts. The result will be recommendations on what the mission planner and crew psychologists can do to better prepare the astronauts for this rigorous journey.”

In providing NASA with research literature, Britt has been asked to interview current and former astronauts and astronaut trainers.

“The idea is to find out what was learned in previous missions about the benefits of meaningful work and how it reduced the negative effects on the astronauts’ stress,” Britt added. “The hope is this work may be a precursor to potentially creating a coping strategy training module for the ground crew to use when communicating with the astronauts.”

Likewise, Shuffler is conducting interviews with a focus on teamwork and multi-team system issues for those who have been involved in space flight or subjected to isolation in environments like the Arctic for extended periods 
of time.

“I’ve talked to astronauts, a retired flight director, scientists involved with space missions and people who have spent winters in the Arctic,” Shuffler said. “One of my charges is multi-team systems and understanding the dynamics between mission control and the astronauts and how all the associated teams can work together toward a cohesive outcome. There’s also the international component of astronauts and support staff and communications from the various mission controls that will be involved.”

Beyond teamwork among the many parties, leadership is another deep dive Shuffler is doing in her NASA research for the estimated $100 billion mission. Shuffler and Britt said the first phase of research could well lead to more questions from NASA and additional studies.

“Marissa and I are just cracking the surface on some of the critical information NASA needs in preparing for a mission of this significance,” Britt said. “It’s a fascinating and rewarding project that we are both honored to be a part of.”