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Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Kavya Manyapu, Flight Crew Operations and Test Engineer – CST-100 Starliner Spacecraft, The Boeing Company

4 November, 2019

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Kavya Manyapu working on crew (astronaut) operations [Image credit: Boeing / Kavya Manyapu]

Dr. Kavya K. Manyapu is truly a Rocket Woman. At The Boeing Company, she is focused on developing the next generation human-rated spacecraft – the CST-100 Starliner. Starliner is scheduled to launch astronauts to the International Space Station over the coming year through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. As the Starliner Spacesuit Lead, Kavya designs and tests the distinctive launch and entry spacesuits to be worn by the Starliner’s crew and trains NASA astronauts assigned to fly onboard the Starliner spacecraft, including the trailblazing Sunita Williams.

Kavya’s keen interest and passion in spacesuit design has additionally led her to develop a key technology to repel lunar dust from spacesuits – the sharp abrasive lunar dust posed a significant hindrance during the Apollo program, damaging spacesuits and creating pressure leaks. Her self-cleaning material sample prototypes are currently being tested on a platform outside the International Space Station! This technology will be crucial as we work towards achieving NASA’s Artemis missions in the 2020s to return humans to the surface of the Moon.

Kavya also teaches the next generation of spacesuit designers and engineers as Adjunct Faculty at the University of North Dakota (UND), and has recently become a Mum. She recently told her alma mater MIT that her ultimate goal is to, “design the next-generation space suit to enhance human capabilities when we go back to the moon—and possibly wear it one day on a mission.”

Rocket Women were thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to Kavya about her passion for human spaceflight and spacesuit design, what success means to her and how her family has helped to shape her career path.

What was the path to get to where you are now in the space industry and what drives your passion for space?

My curiosity in space started when I was 3 years young. I was inspired by the stories my father narrated about Apollo astronauts, cosmonauts and the first Indian cosmonaut in space, while also patiently taking the time to answer every question I had about space and the cosmos. It was my parents’ encouragement to pursue something I am passionate about and to give my best to whatever path I chose that gave me the courage to step into this field. That’s where it started, as a child I was curious and wondered if there were sharks on the moon and whether I can one day explore this myself, and several years later I am living my dream today, working on one of humankind’s greatest endeavors. Working in the space industry makes me realize the immense possibilities of being a human.

It was my parents’ encouragement to pursue something I am passionate about and to give my best to whatever path I chose that gave me the courage to step into this field.

Kavya Manyapu working on the Boeing Starliner Spacesuit, to be worn by astronauts during launch and re-entry onboard the Starliner spacecraft [Image credit: Boeing Company / Kavya Manyapu]

Kavya Manyapu working on the Boeing Starliner spacesuit, to be worn by astronauts during launch, ascent and re-entry onboard the Starliner spacecraft [Image credit: Boeing Company / Kavya Manyapu]

It’s truly amazing to see your innovative spacesuit material being tested on the International Space Station! Congratulations! Could you tell us a bit more about the project and how you were inspired to develop the material?

I’ve always had a keen interest on spacesuits and a fascination for them. While I’ve been working on the next generation spacecraft at Boeing building the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, my interest in getting an advanced degree at the University of North Dakota opened an opportunity to deep dive in the area of spacesuits for long duration missions.

During the early days of my Ph.D. research, I had an opportunity to talk to Apollo Astronaut Alan Bean. It was during the same time I was reading papers on post flight investigations of Apollo spacesuits and hardware, particularly his suit being contaminated by lunar dust and the deleterious impacts of lunar dust faced by astronauts during the Apollo missions. Inspired by the conversation with him and my personal aspiration to make a small contribution towards space exploration led to the conception of the SPIcDER (pronounced “Spider”) Technology.

Inspired by the conversation with him [Apollo Astronaut Alan Bean] and my personal aspiration to make a small contribution towards space exploration led to the conception of the SPIcDER (pronounced “Spider”) Technology. SPIcDER (Spacesuit Integrated carbon nanotube Dust Ejection/ Removal system) was developed to overcome the challenges of dust contamination of spacesuits and other hardware deployed on the lunar surface, a capability particularly required if we want to go back to the moon for long duration missions. Inspired by super hero movies (watched a lot as a kid) specifically Spiderman and Batman (hence the name SPIcDER), the research led to developing the technology that repels and removes dust from spacesuits..

SPIcDER (Spacesuit Integrated carbon nanotube Dust Ejection/ Removal system) was developed to overcome the challenges of dust contamination of spacesuits and other hardware deployed on the lunar surface, a capability particularly required if we want to go back to the moon for long duration missions. Inspired by super hero movies (watched a lot as a kid) specifically Spiderman and Batman (hence the name SPIcDER), the research led to developing the technology that repels and removes dust from spacesuits (and other flexible materials) using Carbon Nanotube fibers that are embedded into suits and energized using a cleaning signal.

SPIcDER has been successfully tested in various environments here on earth including on a fully functioning spacesuit knee-joint. Early generation prototypes of this self-cleaning material are now being exposed to the space environment on the MISSE platform on the International Space Station. I am now working on pursing opportunities for follow-on experiments on ISS to further advance this technology.

Kavya Manyapu working on the Boeing commercial crew Starliner vehicle [Credit: Kavya Manyapu / Boeing]

Kavya Manyapu working on the Boeing commercial crew Starliner vehicle [Image credit: Kavya Manyapu / Boeing Company]

Growing up, I always thought a career path would be a straight road. You work hard, get good grades, get into a good university and land your dream job. Conversely, this journey so far has been nothing but exciting with its twists and turns, ups and downs and, failures and successes.

Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different to your initial expectations?

Growing up, I always thought a career path would be a straight road. You work hard, get good grades, get into a good university and land your dream job. Conversely, this journey so far has been nothing but exciting with its twists and turns, ups and downs and, failures and successes. It’s been a learning expedition, giving a deeper experience of life, both inner and outer. I like it this way since I’ll have many stories to share with my kids, grandkids and the next generation!

What does success mean to you?
When I’m able to use myself to my full potential, regardless of the outcome, that’s what I call success. I don’t think I’ve reached that mark yet and still exploring this potential.

Kavya Manyapu, Starliner Spacesuit Lead, wearing the Boeing Starliner spacesuit [Image credit: Boeing/Kavya Manyapu]

Kavya Manyapu, Starliner Spacesuit Lead, wearing the Boeing Starliner spacesuit [Image credit: Boeing Company/Kavya Manyapu]

I was super thrilled and inspired when I first met my favorite astronaut Sunita Williams during my undergrad, that reinforced the notion that we can aspire and achieve to be anything we dream of! Now I get to work with her on my job!

Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young girls?

Having positive role models will help us uncover our true potentials and when we see someone in a path that we aspire, it reinforces our aspiration and motivates us to strive to uncover our own talents. Role models for me started at home- my parents and grandma were my first role models. symbolizing hardwork, dedication and compassion.

With exposure to various cultures and people via workshops, extra-curricular activities and change of countries (grew up in India an moved to the US after high school), I realized that every person I met had some unique ability that has inspired me. In that sense, everyone that I came across have taught me something about personal and professional growth. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet several astronauts who have inspired me. Particularly, I was super thrilled and inspired when I first met my favorite astronaut Sunita Williams during my undergrad, that reinforced the notion that we can aspire and achieve to be anything we dream of! Now I get to work with her on my job!

My family has been the backbone of everything I am today.

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?

My family has been the backbone of everything I am today. Starting with patiently feeding a 3 year old’s curiosity, to encouraging me to pursue what I am passionate about, taking a big step in leaving their home country and moving to the US so I could pursue my dream of working in the space industry, and more importantly advising me that no matter what career path I choose, I should give my 100%. In my humble opinion empowerment starts at home, and they continue to support me today in both my personal and professional paths.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?
Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

The best advice I received as a 10 year old which I continue to follow – , no matter what it is you are doing, try to do your best and give it your 100%. I’m grateful for receiving this advice (and many other) from my parents. Don’t think I would do anything differently, otherwise I may probably not be doing the things I dreamt of as a 10-year-old that I get to do today.

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Sunita Williams To Fly To ISS On US Commercial Vehicle

27 August, 2015
NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams presenting at ISSRDC 2015

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams presenting at ISSRDC 2015

After launching to space on both NASA’s Space Shuttle and then the Russian Soyuz rocket, Sunita (Suni) Williams will be one of the first female NASA astronaut to fly onboard the new US commercial vehicles being developed. Suni, who formerly held the record for the longest EVA (spacewalk) time by a female astronaut, was chosen along with astronaut colleagues Robert Behnken, Eric Boe and Douglas Hurley to be the first 4 NASA astronauts to fly aboard the future Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.

[Update]: In August 2018 it was announced that Suni would fly alongside fellow NASA Astronaut Josh Cassada to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner first post-certification flight. The first female NASA astronaut to fly to the ISS on a US commercial crew vehicle will be NASA Astronaut Nicole Mann, alongside NASA Astronaut Eric Boe and former NASA and current Boeing Astronaut Chris Ferguson. Nicole is set to fly onboard the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s upcoming crewed flight test. Suni’s ISS flight will follow this flight test and will be a long-duration six-month flight onboard the ISS.

Boeing and Space X were awarded contracts by NASA in September 2014 worth $4.2 billion and $6.2 billion each respectively, to develop the next generation of crew transportation to low-Earth orbit. The  2015 crew selection announcement was made by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden with the selected astronauts including Suni training with the commercial carriers.

Suni Karen

Coinciding with the announcement, Suni appeared on stage with fellow NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg to present an inspiring keynote address at the International Space Station Research & Development Conference (ISSRDC).

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams's advice for budding astronauts! [NASA/Rocket Women]

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams’s advice for budding astronauts! [NASA/Rocket Women]

Get to the starting line

Suni discussed career advice for aspiring astronauts, emphasizing that “Understanding how things work and being an engineer led me to become a helicopter pilot and eventually to JSC. The path doesn’t necessarily have to be straight, but don’t limit yourself to what you know. Go out and try new things. Some of those things when I was young I would’ve considered a failure, but you just need to get to the starting line.” Karen added that her older sister used to laugh and say it was cute when she said she wanted to become an astronaut. However after an internship at NASA Johnson Spaceflight Center she knew that it was the career path for her ,“and here I am”.

Understanding how things work and being an engineer led me to become a helicopter pilot and eventually to NASA. The path doesn’t necessarily have to be straight, but don’t limit yourself to what you know. Go out and try new things. – NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams

Suni Karen ISSRDC

Don’t forget the things you learned at Kindergarden

Suni’s next piece of advice was, “Don’t forget the things that you learnt at Kindergarden”. She recalled the experience of living on the ISS with “people from different cultures and backgrounds, people from all over the world”. Suni’s first mission to the ISS as part of a Soyuz crew of 3, was with an American and Russian, with her most recent with only Russian cosmonauts. She highlighted the international nature of spaceflight through her experience of training with an ESA astronaut and acting as backup crew for a Canadian & Russians. Suni described the sometimes stereotypical view, especially outside of North America that, “Canada, you think just above, is close to being American, but it’s very different.” She also sometimes forgot that her Japanese crewmember was from Japan, as he went to school in US. She described her 6 month missions on the ISS as “a marathon not a sprint”. She discussed the fact that astronauts have to prepare for any incidents that happens on the ISS when the crew are asleep, with the ISS systems and controllers waking the crew up at night if anything was happening. Before her flight she wanted to make sure she was prepared. Discussing the nuances of international work culture, her Japansese crewmate, Aki Hoshide, wanted to “just work Japanese style” Amusingly Suni finally got him to stop working by putting on the TV show Family Guy at 6pm.

Always do your best. Always clean up after yourselves. Admit you’ve made a mistake. – NASA Astronaut Karen Nyberg

Karen added that her philosophy was to “Always do your best. Always clean up after yourselves. Admit you’ve made a mistake”. She described astronauts on the ISS as being a “Jack of all trades up there, including scientists. For some science, we get the experiment rack up and running and leave it alone. Sometimes we get to talk to PIs (Principle Investigators)” which is her favourite time. She said that during her work on the ISS she was “always thinking about the people on the ground and doing her best, knowing how important that experiment is to that person”. Karen admitted that once she “changed up” the wrong igniter in combustion rack and delayed their research for a long time, feeling so awful afterwards.

She went on to describe a popular topic fielding questions. “Urine collections is a technique.” Her first time attempting this, “was a disaster, I made a mess, and used so many dry wipes than allocated. By end it was easier with a hose and I got better with it.” But she missed the first data point for the research and knew that “data means so much to them”.

“Urine collections is a technique.” Karen’s first time attempting this, “was a disaster, I made a mess, and used so many dry wipes than allocated. By end it was easier with a hose and I got better with it.” But she missed the first data point for the research and knew that “data means so much to them”.

Stop and look at the foliage every now and again

Suni’s third lesson to the audience was to “Stop and take a look at the foliage. Just take a moment out and enjoy the journey”. She depicted coming back to Earth on the Soyuz as, “Anti climatic when you’re leaving the ISS and closing the hatch, in long underwear and doing leak checks.” You think “something’s exciting’s going to happen, then undock and sit there for whole orbit with the list of tasks in front of you.” She empathetically depicted the “ride home” as spectacular. “Your face is this close to the window and us knuckleheads are close to the fire. Russians in the middle seat. I was in the left seat, starting and stopping the procedures, not wanting to mess it up.” After deorbit burn she described the crew seeing pink outside the window and the window cover dramatically burning off. “The pyros are going off, we can’t talk to the ground. Then things calm down, the parachute deploys and you’re the walnut bouncing around.” Suni hoped the commercial crew that she had recently been selected to fly with, takes a note and learns from the Russians. Suni’s advice was to enjoy the time in space and the journey, mostly enjoying the work with the scientists on the ground.

Karen added that she wished everyone on Earth had 90 mins to see the view from the cupola on the ISS. She exercised on the ARED below the cupola, for an hour every single day. “I just took for granted that I was over the tip of South America again, 240 miles up. How many things on Earth that are magnificent that we take for granted very single day.“

Astronaut Sunita Williams summed up the sole reason for her outreach activities, “We’re trying to inspire the next generation”.

Suni and Karen described that for girls to be interested in STEM and a career in space, videos from a female astronaut’s perspective were very important, even those describing how to wash your hair in space. The HAM radio project was also surprisingly impactful, taking up a tiny slice of an astronaut’s overall training. Suni stated, “We have a whole bunch of things to do, do a spacewalk, grab a visiting vehicle. The HAM radio is 5 minutes and we speak to 10 kids. Sometimes it’s super clear. We get a report afterwards on how many people were at the event and how much time the kids took to prepare. There’s 1000 kids at an event which is pretty impactful. When you’re flying around, doing science experiments there are 1 or 2 people on the ground that are watching. You start to forget there’s a whole load of other people out there and it really chocked me up. HAM radio was huge and public events. When you’re talking to a screen, you don’t know how many people are down there. It’s better for me when it’s down there. I get really nervous when there’s a lot of people and I’m on a big stage.”

She summed up the sole reason for her outreach activities, “We’re trying to inspire the next generation”.