Q&A With Janice Voss

Author: Jennifer Whitson
Janice Voss (B.S. '75, Engineering Science), was an astronaut and NASA mission specialist. She lost her battle with breast cancer on Feb. 6, 2012. She became an astronaut in July 1991 and spent more than 49 days in outer space on five space missions.

How will the transition from the human spaceflight program, especially the cancellation of the Constellation program, impact Purdue University?

Janice Voss

I don't think it makes a big change in Purdue's position. There have been many transitions. There was a gap between the Apollo and shuttle programs when various programs were canceled, but that hasn't changed anything for Purdue.

The main reason that we're having these challenges in NASA program funding and policy is because of the tight federal budget. The budget debate is huge in Congress and funding overall is getting cut. That could impact Purdue, but that's not specifically the Constellation program.

Given the gap between retiring the shuttle program and developing new technologies, do you think today's students still have as good a chance to reach the goal of becoming an astronaut?

Yes, absolutely. The commercial sector is really going to take off. SpaceX launched Falcon 9, a completely privately developed vehicle, into orbit. That's huge for the commercial industry to have made that first step. The small commercial industry (not Lockheed Martin or Boeing) has never been there before. While it's built on technology that the government developed, we have a commercially developed spacecraft for the first time. There are three other U.S. commercial companies right on SpaceX's heels and there are opportunities with those companies to be astronauts.

NASA continues with its own program and we will have people on the International Space Station. They'll be launching on Russian vehicles, but we've done that before and it didn't decrease the vibrancy of our space program.

Do you think future careers will look vastly different from, for example, the trajectory your career has taken?

There will be more diversity in employers. Everyone has his or her own career path, but the basic principles shouldn't be any different: Pursue a field you can be an expert in, be a good public speaker, a team player, stay fit, and I'm certain there will be plenty of opportunities to fly in space. NASA is already discussing the next astronaut class right now. While it's a smaller one, it's not zero.

Students' initial reaction to the cancellation of the Constellation program was that it is bad news. As the dust settles and new goals are set, they seem optimistic that the changes may actually broaden opportunities for discoveries. Your thoughts?

They're young and haven't been through this kind of transition before. It looks catastrophic. It just feels like it's the end of the world when it's the first time it's happened, but we've still got a lot of vibrancy in the human spaceflight program. We have a new space station that we just finished and is ready to use. Watching the advances in the commercial industry is also very exciting. They'll get a chance to be part of the transition from government programs to the birth of the commercial industry.