Cassville native still shoots for the stars

Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Cassville native and Astronaut Janet Kavandi, front middle, participates in the May 1995 Astronaut Candidate familiarization flight on the KC-135. NASA contributed photo

Kavandi first dreamt of being an astronaut while living in Barry County

For a little girl in the 1960s, looking up at the stars above Barry County and thinking what it would be like to be in space may have seemed like a Jiminy Cricket-style wish upon a star.

However, for Cassville native Janet Kavandi, that was exactly where her astronaut dream began.

STS-91 Mission Specialist and Cassville native Janet Kavandi is photographed seated in the commander's forward flight deck station. NASA contributed photo

Now the first female director of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Kavandi said her first inkling to astronaut fame occurred to her when she was living in Barry County.

"Cassville is a small town, comfortable place to grow up, where everyone knew everyone, and I'm sure it's still that way," Kavandi said. "What I recall most about Cassville is my dad and me sitting on the back porch of our house looking up at the stars and talking about how beautiful it must be up there and what we would be able to see. From space, would we be able to see buildings, roads or people?"

About 30 years later, in the Space Shuttle Discovery launching June 2, 1998, at 6:06:24 p.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kavandi's dream came true. She landed back on Earth nine days, 19 hours, 54 minutes and 12 seconds later.

"[Space] was everything I had dreamt of and more," she said. "It was very gratifying, because that's something I had thought about doing my whole life."

Cassville native and Astronaut Janet Kavandi, STS-99 mission specialist, waves to colleagues prior to departing Ellington Field in a T-38 jet aircraft, destination Florida. NASA contributed photo

Kavandi went on to take two more space flights, launching on Feb. 11, 2000, for an 11-day trip, and again on July 12, 2001, for a 12-day trip. Her flights involved docking with the International Space Station and mapping more than 47 million miles of Earth's land surface for three-dimensional topography maps.

Although she reached her space flight goal in the end, Kavandi said it was not always an easy dream to pursue growing up.

"Kids would always put down in school that they wanted to be firemen or policemen or doctors," she said. "Astronaut was not something most girls that age had on their list. People thought it was funny that I wanted to be an astronaut, but I didn't think it was funny."

Kavandi said she credits her father for her exploratory spirit. He died when she was 8 years old, leading her to move in with her aunt and attend Carthage schools from fourth grade on, graduating in 1977.

Janet Kavandi, STS-104 mission specialist and Barry County native, connects cables and hoses from the newly installed Quest Airlock to Unity Node 1. Other STS-104 and Expedition Two crew members are visible in the background working in the Airlock. NASA contributed photo

"I worked with my dad outside a lot, like on his airplane, and he raised me to not think so gender-specific," she said. "I was always outside milking the cows, riding horses or fishing. I hated doing those indoor chores and cooking.

"My dad was great because he always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. It wasn't until I got out of high school that NASA started hiring females to possibly be astronauts."

After her three space flights, Kavandi was shuttled around the NASA organization, serving as branch chief for the Space Station, deputy chief of the Astronaut Office, director of Flight Crew Operations and deputy director of human health and performance at Johnson Space Center.

In March 2015, Kavandi was named deputy director at the Glenn Research Center, and almost exactly a year later, has been promoted to director of the facility. She succeeds Jim Free, who held the position for three years.

Barry County native and Astronaut Janet Kavandi participates in STS-104 emergency egress training. NASA contributed photo

Her space flight days now in the past, Kavandi is now focused on creating space hardware for the future -- namely a service module that will be used on the Orion mission to Mars.

"The service module will be just under the crew module on the mission, and we have special testing facilities [as a part of the Glenn Research Center] to test the hardware," she said.

Those facilities include: Space Power Facility, Spacecraft Propulsion Research Facility, Cryogenic Propellant Tank Facility, Cryogenic Components Laboratory and Hypersonic Tunnel Facility.

Along with helping develop technology for the Orion mission to Mars, Kavandi will oversee a budget of $580 million, and she will have about 3,200 employees and contractors to manage.

"We're also looking at aviation and energy-efficient aircraft, blending some designs to make future aircraft be more energy-efficient and look different," Kavandi said. "We also want to make aircraft safer. My husband is a pilot, and the more people and more aircraft we get in the air close together, the more safety is needed."

Kavandi is married to a Detroit-based airline pilot, John Kavandi, and the couple have two children. She is the daughter of the late William "Bill" Sellers and Ruth Sellers of Cassville.

To learn more about Kavandi's family history, check out bob Mitchell's column here:

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