Dream Realized - Scholarship established in memory of astronaut alum Janice Voss
Purdue alum Janice Voss’s life mirrored the pinnacle achievements of her career — five space flights as a member of NASA’s space shuttle team. Her life, which ended in February 2012 at age 55 due to breast cancer, will be celebrated through the Janice E. Voss Scholarship for Women in Engineering.
Her parents, Jim (MS Science ’51, PhD Science ’54) and Louise Voss (BS Home Economics ’50) of Dupont, Ind., established the scholarship this past winter and a quick launch is anticipated, with the annual scholarship possibly being awarded as soon as the 2012-13 academic year.
A quick launch is fitting, given Janice’s history. Her kindergarten teacher saw she was far ahead of the curve, and Janice was advanced to third grade after that first year.
During a summer trip to her mother’s family farmstead near Dupont, a nine-year-old Janice picked up and read a copy of “A Wrinkle in Time” from the local public library. The book sparked her interest in space travel and fueled a lifelong love for science fiction, science and math. Years later, on one of her space flights, she read the book by the sun’s light as reflected off Earth. She signed the copy and sent it to the author, Madeleine L’Engle.
“We can’t take credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.”
– “A Wrinkle in Time”
After speeding through grade school, she excelled in high school math and science. The quick rise was not a surprise, given that her parents, are both bright, Purdue graduates.
Janice and her three sisters were always active and very close. The girls were avid readers, and books were always available. “We had books all the time; as many as we could manage,” Louise says. The family enjoyed nature together — camping, hiking, swimming and sailing. All four girls enjoyed playing with the children in the neighborhood. Jim, a pilot, would invite his fun-loving daughters to fly, but they usually weren’t interested unless he was going to practice stalls. The family was also known to spend time at the dinner table discussing the day’s happenings, math, science and even counting in binary, trinary and so on.
At age 14, Janice attended a National Science Foundation summer course at the University of Illinois. She so impressed the professors that she was encouraged to enroll in college in the fall. She opted to return to high school and continue to nurture her love for science and math.
Although Janice excelled in those subjects, she was balanced academically and socially. She participated in marching band, Mathletes®, had a role in a one-act play and worked as a library aide. One summer, on her own, she completed a differential equations class by following the syllabus from a class her father had taught years before.
She graduated from high school before her 16th birthday and became a co-op student, alternately attending Purdue for a semester and working for NASA in Houston.
Although Janice had many options, Purdue pulled at her like gravity. Her parents had enjoyed their time on campus. Her older sister, Victoria, had enrolled at Purdue the same year as Janice, and graduated with a liberal arts degree in 1977. Another sister, Karen, graduated from Purdue in 1983 with a degree in consumer and family sciences. Plus, Purdue had numerous alumni astronauts; Janice was one of 23 Purdue graduates to be selected for space flight.
“That was a pulling point for her,” Louise says. “She figured that would be an advantage.”
Janice earned her bachelor’s degree in engineering sciences from Purdue in 1975, her master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT in 1977 and her doctorate in aeronautics/astronautics from MIT in 1987.
Janice wove her NASA career into her education, determinedly pursuing her dream of traveling in outer space. After earning her master’s, she returned to Houston to train crews on entry guidance and navigation. After completing her PhD, she accepted a position with Orbital Sciences Corp. to work on mission integration and flight operations.
Her fever for space work was obviously viral in the Voss family as two of her three sisters — Victoria and Linda — spent time working with NASA (in computers and technical writing).
Janice, however, wanted more than a career with NASA. She wanted to be in space. She applied to join the astronaut corps three times without acceptance. Undeterred, she applied the fourth time and was accepted in January 1990.
“She would often say, ‘Find something you like, and do well with that,’” Jim says of his daughter. “And, ‘keep trying.’”
Janice blasted into space for the first time in June 1993 aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, a mission notable for taking the commercially developed Spacehab module to space for the first time, along with 22 experiments. Voss, very much in her element, thrived in space, according to her parents. In addition to doing her work, she read and danced in zero gravity — hobbies she enjoyed on Earth, as well.
Janice’s second flight came in February 1995 on Discovery. It was the first time a shuttle had a woman pilot, Eileen Collins. Janice’s third trip to space was as the payload commander in April 1997, but that flight was cut short due to technical issues. In July 1997, Columbia returned to space with the same crew and with Voss again serving as payload commander. This time, the highlight of the mission was a collection of 19 microgravity experiments in the Microgravity Science Laboratory. Her final flight came in February 2000, once again aboard Endeavor. The key accomplishment of the final flight was a comprehensive, high-resolution topographic map of Earth.
In total, Janice logged more than 49 days in space, traveling 18.8 million miles. Amid all the excitement of space flight, it was the science that inspired her most.
“We got more description about her various experiments than the actual space flight,” Louise says. “Really, she was more interested in seeing all the experiments through.”
While Janice did not return to space after 2000, she continued to look toward the stars. In 2004, she became the science office director for the Kepler mission at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. The Kepler mission is designed to discover Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone of the galaxy. Thus far, the mission has found more than 1,000 potential planets.
Janice also continued to pour her energy into students, returning to the Purdue campus every couple of years to speak and inspire young female engineers. She entered Purdue during the early stages of the Women in Engineering Program, which was launched when women made up less than one percent of engineering’s total enrollment. Due to the work of many trailblazers like Janice, women now earn 20 percent of Purdue’s undergraduate engineering degrees.
“She was interested in having women move ahead and be competent in both math and science,” Jim says. “She found it fun. She really did enjoy it and thought everyone should enjoy it.”
When she spoke with students, her humility eclipsed her lofty accomplishments.
“Janice set a tremendous example simply by going where few women and men have been,” says Beth Holloway, director of the Women in Engineering Program. “But setting the example is only half of what she did. She also talked to young people about how engineering and science were pathways to achieving her dreams and encouraged them to dream equally big and work equally hard to achieve those dreams.
“I have heard from students that hearing her speak was one of the highlights of their Purdue experience,” she adds.
Janice was first diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45. She opted against chemotherapy and instead underwent lumpectomy surgery. Ten years later, the cancer returned aggressively and overtook her in February 2012.
She attacked cancer much like she dealt with the rest of her life, exploring it deeply and reading and studying the problem scientifically. But she didn’t allow it to change her routine or disposition, remaining upbeat and even dancing right up to the end.
Jim and Louise wanted Janice’s dream to live on through a Purdue scholarship in her name.
“She had so much enjoyed what was going on at Purdue and was very pleased with the thought of giving to Purdue,” Louise says. “Later in
life she would have definitely given to Purdue herself, so this really fits.”
Janice always was excited to share her story and her message of encouragement to follow your dreams, Holloway says. “Her passion for following her own dream, and encouraging others to follow theirs, was absolutely inspirational.”
If Janice were here to meet the scholarship recipients, Louise says she would tell them, “Whatever your dream is, keep it as a goal, and if you don’t reach it the first time, try and try again.”
To support this scholarship endowment, please designate your gift to the Janice E. Voss Scholarship for Women in Engineering and mail to Purdue Foundation, 403 W. Wood St., West Lafayette, IN 47907-2007.