Ninety-five astronauts are in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and Missouri native Janet Kavandi could have her name added to the prestigious list. She tells Missourinet she would join a large group of famous astronauts if she’s inducted.
“People like the initial first seven astronauts, John Glenn is in there, Neil Armstrong, a whole host of the original early astronaut corps and select people since that time frame,” she says. “It’s just unbelievable. I don’t know what I did to deserve it but I’m very honored to have been selected.”
Out of the 7.5 billion people on the planet, Kavandi is among 546 who have gone to space. She is a veteran of three shuttle missions, has logged about 33 days in space and has traveled more than 13 million miles.
Kavandi’s first mission to space was on the shuttle Discovery in 1998. She recalls heading to the elevators to get onto the aircraft and getting strapped into her seat. She was laying on her back as the rocket faced up. The doors closed and the countdown started shortly after.
Kavandi remembers her heart starting to beat faster and faster as the countdown continued and liftoff drew closer. The engines began to roar. The vehicle began to swing back and forth as it pushed forward, then straightened back up. The crew waited for the solid rocket motors to ignite. Kavandi says that’s when it all sank it.
“I remember giggling. It was involuntary,” Kavandi says. “It just came out because at that moment, you realize, oh my gosh, this is really happening. I’m really going to space. Tears are rolling down my face and into my ears. It’s not because you’re afraid, it’s just because you cannot believe that all those years, all those classes in school, all that patience, all that hard work and you’re finally getting to go to space. That was just the ultimate feeling, probably of any flight was that first liftoff and realizing all of your dreams had come true.”
The ship hurled upwards and headed for outer space.
A vivid memory Kavandi has is when the shuttle overlooked the Earth during darkness.
“At night, if it’s very clear, you can see the lights of the cities. We could pick out England. You could pick out London. You could see the English Channel. You could see all the major cities in Europe,” Kavandi says. “We could see Paris, for instance. Italy sticks out very clearly. You could see Rome and then you go across a very dark Mediterranean. Then you could see Israel. It was very bright and lit up. You can see Northern Africa and you can see Egypt and Cairo. You can see the Nile (River) Delta and the snake of the Nile is all lit up, especially at the Delta. As you come down Africa, it gets very dark. There are not a lot of cities across northern Africa, but you can see the fires of villages and things like that. Then there were a lot of thunderstorms over Africa.”
She remembers watching the way the lightning in the thunderstorms would pop.
“The tops of the clouds looked like popcorn popping. It was just this bright light in this strange pattern with an electric charge would go for hundreds of miles and you could see the lightning travel down those clouds as you followed over that. Then the moonlight on the ocean as you came out across, off of the continents and onto the ocean. It was just such a beautiful path that I still remember that seeing the Earth so clearly in the way it looks at night,” she says.
Kavandi says one of the activities she enjoyed doing in space was sleep on the ceiling.
“You can never do that anywhere else,” she chuckles. “I would always put my sleeping bag upside down and hang from the ceiling. You’re not really hanging – you’re floating there. It’s kind of cool because when you wake up, your mind naturally wants to find the floor and up and down. There really isn’t one there so much. It’s kind of fun to let your brain figure that out.”
Kavandi says her father was key in her pursuit of becoming an astronaut. She describes herself as an outdoorsy person and says she enjoyed climbing trees, fishing, milking the cows, flying with her dad in his plane and gardening.
At night, Kavandi and her father enjoyed looking at the stars. On their farm in southwest Missouri’s Cassville, they talked about the night sky, the satellites going around the planet, what the Earth looked like and watched shooting stars.
“I think it just started that spark of interest in what it would be like to fly in space,” she says. “All through my life as the space program grew, we were flying people and we were going to the moon, it was just something I thought would be the ultimate job. If you could do that, at least I thought that would be the highest point a person could achieve in their career.”
When Kavandi was eight years old, her parents died in an airplane crash.
“They never knew that I got to fly to space. I think my dad would be very proud because he was the one that encouraged me to be strong and never give up, never quit at things. He gave me doctors kits for Christmas presents instead of Barbie dolls,” she says. “He gave me things that made me believe that I could be more than the stereotypical female role at the time and never even thought twice about it. I owe, I think, most of my success to how he made me feel about my own capabilities. I’m hoping he would be very proud that the kid who sat on his lap actually got to go to space and see what the world was like from there.”
Kavandi and her sister moved to Carthage to live with their mother’s sister and her husband. Her uncle built engines for a space shuttle at the NASA center in Huntsville, AL.
Kavandi worked hard and looked at biographies of other astronauts to see what work it took to get to space. Kavandi graduated as class valedictorian in 1977.
She credits both Missouri Southern University in Joplin and Missouri S&T in Rolla for giving her a valuable education. She received an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Missouri Southern State University in 1980, a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Missouri-Rolla in 1982, and a doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Washington in 1990.
“I feel that the Missouri school system is excellent. I’m not sure that everyone realizes how good it is,” Kavandi says.
Kavandi is the director of NASA’s John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio and oversees about 3,000 workers doing cutting-edge research. She was part of NASA’s 2017 eclipse broadcast in Jefferson City.
Induction into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame is April 6 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Listen to the full interview with Dr. Janet Kavandi:
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