Story by: Alex Stuckey
Young Vanessa Wyche sat hunched over a piece of paper, drawing the childish outline of a U.S. president in crayon for a class assignment.
When it came time to shade in the two-dimensional man’s face, Wyche instinctively reached for the brown crayon. It was her skin tone, after all: why couldn’t it be a president’s?
But her second-grade teacher was furious. It was the early 1970s and South Carolina schools had just been desegregated. A black man could not be president, her teacher said.
This exchange was the first time Wyche — now 54 and second in command at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston — can remember being openly belittled for her race by an authority figure. But it’s also the first time she can remember her parents, both educators, standing up for her in the face of oppression.
“I’m certain my father went to the school administration and said ‘Absolutely not, this is her art,’ ” Wyche told the Houston Chronicle in an interview. “I remember them standing up for me and maybe that reinforced that I don’t have to be afraid because someone will always have my back.”
THE ANNOUNCEMENT: First African-American deputy director named at Johnson Space Center
Wyche has carried that confidence and fearlessness throughout her life, trailblazing a path for minorities and women to follow. She was one of just two minority women in her graduating classes at Clemson University for both her bachelor’s degree in materials engineering and a master’s in bioengineering. When she arrived at NASA in 1989, she was the first woman hired full time in the space life sciences division.
And now, Wyche is the first African-American to ever hold the deputy director position at Johnson. Officially, her role is to help center Director Mark Geyer run one of NASA’s largest facilities, home of the nation’s astronaut corps that had a budget of $4.5 billion in fiscal year 2017 and employs about 10,000 civil service and contractor employees.
But unofficially, she plans to use her position to mentor as many minorities and women as possible — to show them it’ s possible to rise the top, as she has.
“If I’m here and successful and do my job well, then others will be able to follow,” she said. “It breaks barriers down for people who are saying ‘I’m not sure if they can do it or not.’ ”
No pressure, right?
Not for Wyche.
“I can only do the best that I can,” she said.
An unusual path to space
Growing up, Wyche didn’t have any exposure to space exploration.
There was no NASA center in her home state of South Carolina, she said, and though astronaut Ronnie McNair’s hometown of Lake City was just 35 miles away, she didn’t know about him until after he died in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger accident.
“I didn’t know working at NASA was an option,” she said.
So after graduating from Clemson, Wyche moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Food and Drug Administration. She only ended up in Houston because her husband, George, is a Texas native and wanted to move back home.
Initially, she wasn’t sure how her professional background would translate to Houston. But it turns out, her biomedical background made her a perfect fit for the life sciences side of the Houston center. And in 1989, she joined the space life sciences division developing biomedical hardware to fly on the space shuttle — the first woman to ever be hired full time in that division and one of the few female engineers across the entire center.
She was just 25 years old.
“OK, no pressure, no pressure,” she said with a laugh.
It all worked out, though. Throughout her 29-year tenure at the center, she has served as acting director of Human Exploration Development Support and assistant center director. She most recently was director of the center’s Exploration Integration and Science Directorate, where she provided “guidance and direction” to allow for human and robotic exploration of deep space.
“Vanessa has a deep background at JSC with significant program experience in almost all of the human spaceflight programs that have been hosted here,” Geyer said last month after he chose Wyche as his deputy. “She is respected at NASA, has built agency-wide relationships throughout her nearly three-decade career and will serve JSC well as we continue to lead human space exploration in Houston.”
She also helped manage the space shuttle program, which was shuttered in 2011. Since then, the United States has been forced to rely on Russia to transport its astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
It’s one of the reasons she’s so excited about her new position — she can use it to help the commercial crew program succeed.
“I grew up in the shuttle program,” she said. “I’m super excited about flying astronauts from Florida again.”
Boeing and SpaceX were awarded NASA contracts totaling $6.8 billion in 2014 to build their own crew spacecrafts and conduct missions to the space station. Both initially were expected to launch crewed test flights this year, but the schedules of both companies have slipped to 2019.
When the companies do fly, however, it will be the first time astronauts will launch to space from U.S. soil since Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011.
NASA has come a long way since the 1980s, Wyche said, when female and minority engineers were few and far between.
But there is still work to be done to encourage young people to pursue these areas as careers, she said.
“My entire life my parents always instilled in all of us that we should give back to the community,” she said of herself and her four siblings. “My way of being able to hopefully make a difference is to see it as a problem that needs to be addressed at the education level.”
So Wyche stays involved, traveling to local elementary schools with groups of NASA engineers to show the kids that working at the space agency is a career path they can follow.
The students “get to see that people who look like them work at NASA and they know they can do it as well,” she said.
She also works with the young employees at Johnson, as well as the African-American employee resource group. And she visits colleges, including her alma mater Clemson, to encourage minority students to finish their degrees.
Lee Gill, chief diversity officer at Clemson, said Wyche’s successful careers shows students that they, too, can be successful in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
“The message I want our students to take away is what she said- do not let your environment dictate who you are,” he said in a Clemson news release. “If you want to be an engineer, if you want to be a scientist, if you want to be an astronaut — wherever you come from — you can be that.”
And that’s exactly what Wyche aims to do.
“If in any way I can help a little girl or boy decide that they want to be an engineer or an astronaut,” she said, “I feel grateful to be able to do that, to let anyone know they can be a part of this.”