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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AeroAstro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2005–2006 issue of AeroAstro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2006 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sci-fi turns high-fly for astronaut-alumna Janice Voss

By Matthew Silver

In Madeleine L'Engle's science fiction novel, A Wrinkle in Time, a high school girl embarks with her brother on an adventure through space and time to battle evil forces at nearby stars and rescue her father trapped on an alien planet. Among the millions of minds this story has captivated is that of a young Janice Voss who, years later as MIT AeroAstro alum and an astronaut, brought a copy into space to later present the author.

Enthralled with spaceflight through science fiction and the world of the imagination, Janice Voss brought a focus and determination to her MIT studies and goals, which allowed her to bring the inspiration full circle. "I got into space exploration because of science fiction," says Voss. "Since high school I wanted to be an astronaut."

Selected for training in 1990 as the first female astronaut from MIT, Voss has blasted into space five times, traveling a total of 18.8 million miles in 779 orbits over 49 days. She is tied with Shannon Lucid, Bonnie Dunbar, and Tamara Jernigan for the record number of space flights by a woman. Of this achievement, she told MIT Tech Talk in 2000, "I don't think of it as a record, but a work in progress."

Her missions have included a rendezvous with the Mir Space Station; operating experiments in SpaceHab, the first commercial laboratory module in space; and mapping 47 million square miles of the Earth's surface. The latter activity, which took place on her fifth flight, resulted in a high-resolution digital elevation map of 80 percent of the earth's surface.


AeroAstro alum, astronaut Janice Voss.

Voss oversaw numerous experiments over her five flights, including many designed to understand how animals and edible plants grow in space. She became adept at operating the Space Shuttle's robotic arm, deploying and retrieving satellites on her second mission in 1995. Voss was payload commander on her third flight in 1997, conducting experiments on micro-vibrations and combustion in micro-gravity.

An element of danger

Like a good science fiction story, Voss's missions have not been without their element of danger. On her third flight, ground operators detected voltage irregularities in one of the Space Shuttle's three electricity-generating fuel cells. Fearing an explosion, they cut the mission to a "minimum duration flight," descending after five days instead of the planned 16. Was Voss worried? "Actually, I was on my sleep rotation when the problem was discovered," she says, "By the time I woke up the decision to move to minimum duration flight had been made." While initially disappointed, the crew and the experiments flew again for a full 16 days a few months later, resulting in total space time permitting more science than would have been possible in the original mission.

All of Voss's flights were successful, and she has many fond memories. Among the most meaningful of her special moments occurred at the end of her first flight. Weather on Earth delayed descent by a day, giving Voss a chance to read in space the very stories that had inspired her career.

"I had brought Isaac Asimov's novel Foundation as one of my two personal items," Voss explains. "During the extra day in orbit, I had time to float by the window of the Space Shuttle and read it by the light of the Earth. Being in space reading science fiction by Earthlight was amazing. It felt like things had come full circle."

Originally from South Bend Indiana, Voss spent her high school days in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, where, she says, her love for science fiction turned into her goal to pursue a career in the space program. Voss received a Bachelor's in Engineering Science from Purdue in 1975.

AeroAstro fosters skills, planning

Voss entered MIT in 1976, where she learned both the skills and planning it would take to realize her dream. She completed a Master's in Electrical Engineering in 1978, writing a thesis on Kalman filtering techniques. The knowledge proved so useful that she eventually turned her thesis into a workbook for the astronaut corp.

For her Ph.D. in the AeroAstro Department, Voss examined the guidance and control of large space structures, with particular attention to modal dynamics. As an astronaut, she notes, Dr. Richard Battin's course in astrodynamics (16.346) proved particularly handy.

In addition to academic knowledge she gained at MIT, Voss learned how to put her career goals into practice. "[Former] NASA astronaut Rusty Schweickart gave a talk while I was doing my masters, and made the point that it is very difficult to make it into the astronaut corps, so it is important to have a plan A and plan B." Plan A, of course, stood for Astronaut. Voss took this advice and, given her passion for space, Plan B involved working in space operations in some other capacity.

What is Voss's advice for today's aspiring astronauts? Having Plan A and Plan B is important, she councils. But, as importantly, "Do what you love. No one can predict what NASA will want in five or ten years, but one thing that is certain is that they will want excellence. Doing what you love will ensure that you will excel, and that will give you a better chance of being selected."

It is also important to have a certain amount of breadth in addition to depth, Voss notes. This was partly her motivation for pursuing the masters in Electrical Engineering before concentrating on Aeronautics and Astronautics. "Many of the qualities that NASA looks for such as computer skills, being fit, or speaking with the public, are valuable in any field. These will help you move into other fields if you want to later."

For Voss, doing what she loved at MIT included spending long hours gorging herself on free science fiction at the MIT Science Fiction Society. A life-long dancer, she also participated in the Ballroom Dance Club and the MIT Tech Square-Dancers. In fact, on her last flight in space Voss participated with German astronaut and fellow dance-aficionado Gerhard Thiele in what may have been the first official ballroom dance in space. They danced the Swing.

"We quickly discovered it doesn't work if both people are free-floating. And both people anchored would have been pointless." Voss explains, "So we decided that the guy has to be anchored since he leads, but then you need a dance where the guy doesn't move. The only ballroom dance like that is the Swing."

These days Voss is no longer on flight status, which means she will not fly again. She works at the NASA Ames Research Center as the Science Director for the Kepler Spacecraft, scheduled to launch aboard a Delta II rocket in June, 2008. Kepler will look for Earth-sized planets around distant stars, focusing on orbital distances known as "habitable zones" where liquid water could be present. Results from the Kepler mission will give us a better idea of where our solar system fits within the continuum of solar systems throughout the galaxy.

The Kepler mission is a fitting continuation of Voss's career in the space program, which began nearly 40 years ago when she read about adventures through space and time, to nearby stars surrounded by distant worlds and alien civilizations. With some luck, perhaps she will help turn yet another element of good science fiction into reality.

Matthew Silver is a researcher in the MIT Space Systems Laboratory and a freelance writer. He has master's of science degrees from MIT in Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Technology and Policy. He can be reached at

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