Janet Kavandi, who recently retired from a senior NASA post, went to space three times and added fairness to the astronaut selection process.
By Jillian Kramer
Every time an astronaut puts on an American spacesuit to conduct a spacewalk at the International Space Station, they pass through a portal installed in part by Janet Kavandi. It isn’t the only thing the former astronaut did that changed the work of her successors in space. After three missions to orbit, Dr. Kavandi moved into NASA administration, eventually overseeing how astronauts were selected. She’s credited with adding fairness to a process that for the first time chose an astronaut class that included as many women as men.
So when Dr. Kavandi, 60, retired as director of Glenn Research Center, a Cleveland, Ohio facility that designs innovative technologies for NASA, she left not only a legacy in human spaceflight, but also a moon-sized hole for the agency to fill.
Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida, called her a role model for women serving in leadership roles at NASA in the future.
“That next female is not plowing new ground,” he said, “just going down the already existing path.”
Dr. Kavandi said she was leaving for personal and practical reasons. At 60, she was eligible for retirement, and she also looked forward to earning more income for her family at Sierra Nevada Corporation’s space systems division.
Her departure comes as NASA is switching into higher gear to meet a mandate set by the Trump administration of returning American astronauts — the next man and the first woman — to the moon by 2024. It also was announced following other major personnel changes.
In July, Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, reassigned William Gerstenmaier, an official who for years oversaw human spaceflight. Lawmakers criticized the move, and some analysts saw the change as a demotion. In April, Mark Sirangelo joined NASA to aid Mr. Bridenstine on the Artemis moon mission.
He left after just 44 days
Last year Mr. Bridenstine sought to have Dr. Kavandi nominated as the No. 2 official at NASA. “I was fully aware that this was not in any way a ‘done deal,’ so I had no expectations,” she said.
President Trump instead nominated James Morhard, a former deputy sergeant-at-arms in the Senate with no previous space technology experience.
She said she was not disappointed that the deputy administrator job went to Mr. Morhard.
But her retirement leaves NASA with one fewer woman in senior leadership. Lori Garver, NASA’s former deputy administrator and founder of the Brooke Owens Fellowship, which matches undergraduate women with aerospace industry internships, estimates that less than 15 percent of the agency’s top roles are filled by women.
“When there is such an imbalance at the top, the culture tends to favor men, and women often struggle to be heard or have their views taken seriously,” she said.
NASA said diversifying its leadership and astronaut corps is a priority.
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