Sara's Circle: Launching success with NASA's Janet Kavandi

Deputy Director at the Glenn Research Center is her new job, but NASA is Dr. Janet Kavandi's lifelong dream.
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Deputy Director at the Glenn Research Center is her new job, but NASA is Dr. Janet Kavandi's lifelong dream.

“I had wanted to be an astronaut, since I was a child. Probably about 5 years old,” said Kavandi. “I could see the stars and space at night. It was always so intriguing. My dad and I would talk about what it was like, to be up there, looking back at the planet.”

That view she long imagined was even cooler in reality.

“I remember thinking, you know, it looks like a big IMAX theater, only I'm here, and I'm floating, and the earth is turning underneath me, it's just such a very, very, cool experience,” she said.

“The launch experience is very exciting. You have the countdown. And you have the anticipation. And then when the engine's ignite, you feel the rumble, and then you're thrust off the pad. And then you're shaking and rumbling and rolling all the way up,” she said. “I remember just the tears rolling back, because you're facing up, and they were rolling into my ears. And it wasn't fear. It was just I couldn't believe I was really there. I just couldn't believe that my dream had come true, and I'm going to space.”

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And then?

“As soon as the engines cut off, you immediately float. Your legs lift off the floor, your arms lift off your lap. And it's like, ‘It's real! Microgravity is real!’ You actually float. And then you unbuckle, and you just lift up out of your seat, and it's just the coolest sensation.”

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After joining the astronaut program in 1994, Janet flew three Shuttle missions in 1998, 2000 and 2001. She’s logged more than 33 days in space, traveling more than 13.1 million miles in 535 Earth orbits. She spent time conducting experiments on the space station, even mapping the Earth in a way you might recognize.

“We got to map the Earth in a very high resolution, 3-D, kind of way. That you may see on your cellphones today as Google Maps,” she said. “It’s pretty neat to know we've contributed in that way.”

All the while, Janet was raising two kids, young then, with her pilot husband.

“He wanted to be a pilot as much as I wanted to be an astronaut. We all struggled and did that thing, where you don't let things stop you,” she said reflecting. “Yeah, it was a challenging time. I don't remember a time that wasn't challenging in full in my life. And I guess it's part of just what we do to ourselves. If we want to do everything, we just fill our days and our hours with interesting things.”

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Houston became her base, until she moved to Cleveland last spring. Now getting to be with grown-up family recharges her.

“My daughter's going to grad school in Corpus Christie. My son's working out of Houston, so I go every two or three weeks and go and see them and that really helps,” said Kavandi.

While NASA Glenn's work is making airplanes safer, examining algae blooms in Lake Erie, and dozens of other projects, it is space that still gets to Janet.

“To enable the first people to walk on Mars. I think that would be so awesome,” she said.

“Does it ever seem surreal to you?” Channel 3’s Sara Shookman asked.

“All the time. It always seems surreal,” Janet said. “I can't believe I'm here. I can't believe it actually worked. I can't believe I was in space. I can't believe I got to see all those cool things. I'm always pinching myself, like this is really what I get to do, and how cool is that? I'm just so lucky.”

If you're interested in learning more about NASA Glenn, the research center is lifting its gates for an open house this month in honor of its 75th anniversary. You can find more information here.

We're starting a new series Thursdays on Channel 3 News at 6 about the women in Northeast Ohio's communities who make things happen. These are women who see the possible, women you'd like to have in your group, women we’re bringing into Sara’s Circle.

How she'd describe her job at NASA Glenn

"I think it’s sort of like the mayor of small, little community. We have like 3,200 people that work here. Really smart people, most of our people have advanced degrees and about 25 percent of them have PhDs. So you know, it’s like I can’t outsmart anybody here. Everyone always is smarter than me, it feels like. It’s such a real challenge, but it’s such an honor to work with a great of people like this."

How parents can help kids achieve their dreams

"If you set in your child’s mind that, ‘I can do anything,’ and ‘I believe you can do anything,’ that the child believes they can do anything, and if we don’t typecast our children, or give them gender roles, then they don’t grow up thinking they should abide by certain gender roles."

What she tells people she mentors

"I think people are a little more anxious to move up quicker now, so I'm kind of setting an expectation that it takes time to get that experience so you can accept more and more levels of responsibilities. Some of that comes with having things fail, having things break, and having to fix them...Part of that whole process, that disappointment and elation that the thing that does work, makes the life and the experience here that much more rich. I think that’s just part of working in a center that does basic research and does the kind of cool stuff that gets us to Mars and beyond."

Why it's important to keep exploring space

"There are so many things left to learn out there that we haven’t even begun to touch. I think it would be a really good thing to have an outpost on Mars. I think learning to live on another planet is important. Learning to see if we can actually establish a permanent residence on another planet, is very critical to human survival in the long run."

What she thinks while watching space movies

"I think the Martian was very well done. The person who wrote the book, actually did a lot of research and based most of his writing on actual technical information. Like real engineering information. All the life support equipment that he talked about, energy supplies and all those things, those are based on real equipment that we either have designed or will be designing for a planetary surface, so some of that was even designed [at NASA Glenn]. I think they did as good a job as anyone has ever done at making that the most realistic example of what it would be like to live on Mars."