ALL SYSTEMS GO
Kavya Manyapu is fulfilling a lifelong dream of working for NASA.
The former Georgia State University Perimeter College student — and now rocket scientist — has joined NASA’s Artemis program at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Artemis aims to take the first woman to the moon by 2024, 55 years after Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong’s history-making landing.
Manyapu’s career in aerospace has been a blast from the start, she says. For almost a decade, she worked in multiple roles with Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner program in Houston.
“It is the dream of every rocket scientist to be working on a spaceflight program,” Manyapu says. “We went from sketches on paper to launching our first test flight. Working with our Boeing and NASA partners, it was an incredible experience.”
Her next goal: Travel to space as an astronaut.
She’s been working toward it since she was a little girl gazing up at the moon and stars with her father from the roof of their home in India. The family moved to the United States in 2002 in part to help Manyapu pursue her NASA plans.
As an international student, Manyapu enrolled at Perimeter (then Georgia Perimeter College), where she studied engineering. She made some of her first contacts with staff at NASA thanks to professor Anant Honkan.
She transferred to Georgia Tech in 2004, earning a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering followed by a master’s in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She became the first person at the University of North Dakota to receive a doctorate in aerospace sciences from the Department of Space Studies, where she is now an adjunct professor.
At Boeing, Manyapu was flight test engineer on the CST 100 Starliner, a commercial spacecraft designed to go to the International Space Station. She worked to ensure safe exit strategies for astronauts in emergencies and was a flight test director for the Starliner’s first orbital flight test. Manyapu was also spacesuit operations lead, testing and training astronauts in Starliner spacesuits. She helped design and develop the cockpit display and control systems and conducted mock-up evaluations as well.
Drawing from that experience, Manyapu focused her doctoral research on creating a “dust-proof” spacesuit.
“I studied lunar dust and its impact on spacesuits,” she says. “It proved to be a major issue during Apollo missions. With no atmosphere, dust on the moon is sharp and abrasive, and it got into everything, including the spacesuits.”
Manyapu now holds several patents for a “smart” spacesuit fabric that contains carbon nanotubes which repel dust when an electric current is applied to them. Some of the fabric she created for her research was sent to the International Space Station in 2019.
Prior to leaving Boeing, Manyapu configured and led a complex crew test with astronauts in flight suits in a spacecraft — a major milestone prior to the crew flight test of Starliner, she says. Her dedication to the test meant she had just a weekend of rest before jumping into her new role at NASA March 15. But she says it was worth it.
“The last test was the highlight of my career,” she says.
Manyapu is well-equipped for the challenges that lie ahead. An experienced private pilot and certified scuba diver, she has participated in Mars simulations for Boeing in the Utah desert and asteroid simulations for NASA at Johnson Space Center.
“I’ll be working on planning and preparing for spacewalks and testing spacesuits for the missions to the moon that would eventually get us to Mars,” she explains. “But I will be rooting for the Starliner mission and cheering when they take off.”
Manyapu looks for ways new technology developed for human survival on other planets can be applied on Earth in areas where food and water are scarce.
“The first time we went to the moon was for geopolitical reasons,” she explains, referencing the 1960s U.S.-Soviet Union space race that led to the Apollo program and the first man on the moon.
But the focus has shifted now. The Artemis program is setting a path for future deep space operations and for long-duration missions.
“All the great science investigations we’re doing on the International Space Station, we will continue to do on the moon, and we will test our technologies to eventually take those first steps on Mars, transcending frontiers,” she says.
Manyapu looks at space exploration as the future of all humanity, including her 1-year-old daughter.
“I’m grateful she will be part of that next generation that will look at space travel as commonplace, and know the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education,” she says.
When asked if she’d like to be part of a future Artemis mission herself, Manyapu doesn’t hesitate.
“I’d go in a heartbeat,” she says.
Photos courtesy of Kavya Manyapu