Barrier-breaking career launched from Clemson University for Vanessa Wyche
Clemson University served as a launching pad for Vanessa Ellerbe Wyche, whose barrier-breaking career has positioned her as the first African American to serve as deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
She is literally shooting for the moon and beyond in her new job, as NASA prepares to launch astronauts from Florida and for a mission to Mars.
Wyche was promoted to deputy director on Aug. 8 after holding several leadership positions in a career with NASA spanning nearly three decades. She is now helping Director Mark Geyer lead 10,000 civil service and contract employees at Johnson Space Center in Houston and White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Wyche, who holds two engineering degrees from Clemson, said she follows the example set by her parents, who both gave back to their community. She counts her father as her most influential mentor.
“My father, who was an educator, believed that the girls could do everything that boys could do, and so he exposed us to everything that my brother did,” Wyche said. “We got to learn everything about mechanics. He wanted us to be able to fix our own car if we had a flat.”
Wyche remembers having to study hard at Clemson. She entered the university without the benefit of having taken many advanced classes because they were scarce in South Carolina high schools at that time.
“I had some really good professors,” Wyche said. “I remember my chemistry professor probably the best of all. I remember telling him that I wasn’t quite understanding something. He told me that I just needed to step back, take a break, and it was going to come to me. And it did.”
Lee Gill, chief diversity officer at Clemson, said that Wyche’s success sends a powerful message to students who may not have had access to college-prep and STEM programs in high school.
“The message I want our students to take away is what she said– do not let your environment dictate who you are,” he said. “If you want to be an engineer, if you want to be a scientist, if you want to be an astronaut– wherever you come from– you can be that. Frankly, I think she makes Clemson look good.”
Wyche grew up the youngest child in a family of four girls and one boy. They lived in Conway, a city along the Waccamaw River that is removed by about 15 miles from the tourist hubbub of Myrtle Beach.
Wyche’s father, Gilbert B. Ellerbe, Jr., served as the assistant principal at Conway High School, the executive director of a local recreation facility, and Boy Scouts master. Wyche’s mother, Inez Bethea Ellerbe, was an elementary school teacher and Girl Scouts leader.
“She was a great role model because she worked, and she also took care of five kids,” Wyche said. “She made sure we all had exposure to the arts. We were all in scouts. We grew up in a church.”
Clemson recruited Wyche when she was a student at the Governor’s School, back when it was a summer program in Charleston. When Wyche arrived on campus, she joined her brother, Gilbert Ellerbe, who would go on to receive his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.
Wyche was at Clemson from 1981-87, receiving her bachelor’s in engineering and master’s in bioengineering.
Then she headed for Washington, D.C., where she took a job with the Food and Drug Administration in the Office of Device Evaluation. Her Clemson education prepared her well, she said.
While in Washington, the Clemson alumna met Georgetown Law student George Wyche, Jr., who became her husband. They moved to his hometown, Houston, so she needed a new job.
That’s how Wyche found her way to the Johnson Space Center, where she was the first woman hired as a project engineer in the division she was assigned.
“When I got here, I just used the same principles that allowed me to be successful at Clemson, which included hard work,” she said. “I was a sponge. If there was something to learn, I was learning it.”
Within about six months, Wyche was named employee of the month, and her career has been on a rocket-like trajectory ever since. She has held several leadership positions and is the recipient of two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals and two NASA Outstanding Leadership Medals.
In her new job, Wyche has her sights set on new launches from Florida and sending astronauts to the moon and then on to Mars.
“These are exciting times at NASA,” she said.
Astronauts have been continuously orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station for nearly 18 years. Since the shuttle retired, the space station has been resupplied by Russian vehicles launching from Russia.
But that’s about to change, Wyche said.
“We are on the verge of having two new vehicles that are going to launch from Florida– the SpaceX Dragon and the Boeing Starliner,” she said. “We just announced new astronauts. They are training to launch on those vehicles. And so within the next couple of years, we’re going to be launching again from Florida. We’re super excited about that.”
NASA also has been given a clear mission to go to the moon and then to Mars, Wyche said.
“The Orion vehicle is being built and managed here at the Johnson Space Center, and we will launch humans from Florida that will go to a platform in the vicinity of the moon called the Gateway,” she said. “We will have an orbiting spacecraft near the moon that will allow us to access the moon and from there build up a transport capability that will allow us to go to Mars.”
Wyche returned to campus in February to help celebrate the 30th anniversary of PEER & WISE, a program for students from groups underrepresented in engineering and science.
Serita Acker, the program’s director, said Wyche’s experience shows students there is no limit.
“She is a testament that if you work hard and you network and you get involved, you can go to greater heights,” Acker said. “From where I stand, she is an awesome role model.”
In addition to her career, Wyche is involved in several community organizations in Houston. One sends NASA engineers to a local elementary school to help with a science fair that is judged by professionals from the oil and gas industry. She has also worked with the Boy Scouts.
Wyche and her husband have a 24-year-old son, George Wyche, III, who is an Eagle Scout and college graduate, pursuing a master’s in psychology.
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said that Wyche is an excellent ambassador for her alma mater.
“Mrs. Wyche’s service to her nation, community and alma mater position her as an excellent role model and inspiration, especially for students from underrepresented groups,” Gramopadhye said. “I congratulate her on her new job, and we hope to see her back at Clemson soon.”