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Conway native Vanessa Wyche reflects on being first Black woman to lead a NASA center

Published: Aug. 23, 2021 at 6:15 AM EDT
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CONWAY, S.C. (WMBF) - From playing with her brother during hot Horry County summers to now leading more than 10,000 employees at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, a long journey for Vanessa Wyche recently paid off in historic fashion.

Wyche was named the JSC’s director earlier this year, becoming the first African American woman to hold the position. While acknowledging she is the first to break that barrier, she hopes she won’t be the last.

“For me, it is significant because I do recognize that it’s a first,” she said. “So it’s very important for me to share with others that I’m the first, but that just means that we are going to have many more to come. I want to make sure that others know that this is something that anyone can do. I want it to be one day, very soon, where it’s somewhat normal...that it’s not a history-making event.”

Wyche grew up in Conway and found her passion for science early on thanks to her family.

“My brother got a chemistry kit one Christmas,” she said. “I was his apprentice and I got hooked.”

Wyche’s love for science was seen by other members of her family, including her sister, Sylvia Hickman.

The sisters each said their parents, both teachers, encouraged them to do well in school and played a vital role in their lives.

“I keep my parents in my heart every day,” said Wyche. “They raised me to pursue my dreams, and gave me every opportunity to make that happen.”

Wyche graduated from Clemson University with degrees in engineering and had a stint in the FDA before joining NASA in 1989. Reflecting on that time, she explained there weren’t many women in the engineering field when she joined NASA.

“At first I felt that it’s a little lonely sometimes,” Wyche said. “I just decided that it’s for me, it’s what I wanted to do. I hung out with the guys and then more girls came, and now probably 35% of our workforce is female.”

Wyche has several awards with the agency and was named deputy director at JSC in 2018. She took over as director last month, and played roles in the development of human spacecraft as well as landing the first woman and first person of color on the Moon.

Outside of her role at NASA, Wyche is a promoter of STEM programs and is a member of other organizations that promote education and leadership development.

When asked if she has any advice for current students, she simply encourages them to find their own passions.

“I would just tell them that they can do it,” said Wyche. “Whatever they put their minds to, not to let anyone deter them. Just go for it.”

Back home, Hickman says she continues to feel pride in what her sister has accomplished.

“I am just proud of her and what she has accomplished as a woman, a woman of color, a mom and a wife,” she said. “She makes things look so easy.”

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