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Begin With Curiosity Vanessa Wyche

Clemson alumna Vanessa Wyche has made a career pursuing destinations more distant than most people can imagine. Follow her journey to the moon and Mars.

Vanessa smiles, standing with hands clasped in front of a bank of windows on Clemson's campus.
Vanessa sits smiling in a TV studio.'Watch Vanessa's Story' and the play symbol are beside her. anessa sits smiling in a TV studio.'Watch Vanessa's Story' and the play symbol are beside her.


Begin with Curiosity

Explore your interests

"I’ve always had a passion for learning. My parents were educators, and academic excellence was a fundamental tenant in our household. They instilled in their children that with hard work and focus, anything is possible. Being one of few did not deter me then, and it motivates me now to mentor young females and encourage them to pursue STEM careers."

Vanessa Wyche was destined for outer space. It was the only place big enough to contain her dreams.

Even as a young child, Wyche had a vision for what she could become. Her parents offered support and encouragement. Teachers and mentors nurtured her inquisitive mind. And the world's limitless possibilities provided a bedrock of inspiration.

A photo frame with cursive decoration that reads 'Memories' displays a photo of Vanessa Wyche in the first grade
Vanessa kneels next to a group of young, smiling schoolchildren

The two-time Clemson alumna secured her undergraduate degree in engineering and master's degree in bioengineering from the University in 1985 and 1987, respectively. Her experiences on campus paved the way for a more than 30-year career pairing public service with scientific discovery, and in 2021, she secured the helm of NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC).

Today, Wyche serves as director of the Houston, Texas-based facility, which has been a hub of human spaceflight activity for more than half a century. Through the decades, the Center has housed the nation's astronaut corps, directed International Space Station mission operations, and overseen the Orion and Gateway programs along with a host of other future-space developments.

Empower New

Women account for only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of graduates in computer science and informatics.

— United Nations

Pursue New Ideas

Clemson is listed among the Most Innovative Schools among all national universities

– U.S. News & World Report, 2022

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Best Undergraduate Engineering Program Nationally
Undergraduate Engineering Program in South Carolina

— U.S. News & World Report, 2022

Focus on the future

Johnson Space Center has provided thought leadership for some of the most distant parts of our galaxy, but until Wyche, the facility had never been led by an African American. While studying engineering in the mid-1980s, there were not many women in her program. But that never deterred her from her work.

Working in teams and absorbing knowledge about human spaceflight, especially from mentors, were two things that marked Wyche's path to NASA. Her college years also taught her the importance of passion and discipline. Both informed her work ethic, built atop the already-strong foundation provided by her parents and siblings growing up in Conway, South Carolina.

She was launched toward opportunities that she could aim for because she could imagine them and had people around her who supported them.

Vanessa poses with a group holding her Clemson Hall of Fame plaque in front of a sign that reads Clemson Engineering Computing Applied Sciences Vanessa gestures at a Clemson Bioengineering sign while walking with a companion in a hallway

Find your fit

It was a summer program at the South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Mathematics that introduced Wyche to Clemson for the first time.

She enrolled as a biochemistry and microbiology student. But after talking with her brother, then a chemical engineering student at Clemson, and her adviser, she switched to engineering — in part the study of how things work, which spoke to the analytical side of her academic interests.

The switch to engineering was fortuitous. Trading microscopes for telescopes became official when she joined NASA as a project engineer a few years after graduating. Her early years at NASA were during what she describes as "the shuttle days." Three decades later, she landed the position of director.

"My studies piqued my passion and curiosity for the scientific method. Clemson will always be dear to my heart, as it's been instrumental in my navigation of building successful missions."

Vanessa speaks at a podium in front of a video board displaying her name and title

Write a new history

Wyche has been part of NASA's leadership team, flying astronauts safely to the International Space Station, for more than 20 years. Today, astronauts from the Johnson Space Center orbit the Earth, conducting research through sensors on board that aid in studying the climate and other research that benefits our planet.

Soon there will be even more opportunities for explorers to enter space. Partnerships with companies like SpaceX and Boeing serve as providers for commercial transportation to and from the International Space Station, allowing NASA to focus its efforts on building a rocket called the Space Launch System.

Bigger than Apollo, bigger than the Saturn V rocket, taller than the Statue of Liberty and more than half the length of a football field, the Space Launch System rocket will give NASA the ability to carry our astronauts to the moon. That lunar mission will one day enable a Mars mission, which is the next big challenge ahead of Wyche and her flight operations team.

NASA will land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon as a part of the Artemis program. That work, too, is well underway.

Vaness stands with a group in front of the Space Launch System rocket
Vanessa shakes hands with a female astronaut

Pursue discovery

Wyche found her inspiration as a little girl. Today, she has a deep appreciation for how historic her appointment is as the first African American to lead Johnson Space Center. But true to form, Wyche is already looking to the future.

She envisions a day when there will not be a "naming of firsts" but rather diversity at every level of science. "Firsts are great, but normalization is powerful," she says.

"NASA has a tremendous vision. We want to expand the space economy and leverage our scientific findings to positively impact the quality of life on Earth. It's my privilege to lead the team at Johnson Space Center, responsible for executing human space exploration on behalf of the United States."

Vanessa speaks while seated at a table with four other women in front of a NASA sign

From childhood to her Clemson days to today, Wyche has never been discouraged from taking on a big challenge. She has made a career pursuing a destination more distant than most people can even imagine. The journey, and the experiences that accompany it, has been her reward.

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