New NASA Glenn director has UT ties, sees ‘bright future’ for northern Ohio

The new director of NASA’s critically important Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is a Puerto Rico native who obtained her master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Toledo in 1987. Marla Perez-Davis was recently elevated to that role after serving as interim director since Oct. 1, following the retirement of former NASA Glenn Director Janet Kavandi. Ms. Kavandi left the space agency after 25 years to become senior vice president of space systems for Sierra Nevada Corp., a global aerospace and national security contractor. Ms. Perez-Davis has no great anecdotes about Rocket football games or tailgate parties, though. She never actually left Cleveland while working on her master’s degree. She earned it while continuing to work at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration through a little-known extension program that UT offers space agency employees. Jan Wittry, NASA Glenn spokesman, said the agency actually has “quite a few people with University of Toledo degrees who didn’t physically go there.” “I completed my master’s degree through a NASA-University of Toledo continuous education program,” Ms. Perez-Davis told The Blade on Friday. “The faculty came to NASA Glenn two days a week to provide courses. It allowed for continuous education while working full time. In addition it provided an opportunity to network and get to know employees from other areas of the research center. The classroom experience and teamwork served all of us well.” She has only been on the UT campus a couple of times, but is impressed with it. “It is a beautiful campus,” Ms. Perez-Davis said. The odyssey that brought her to Cleveland and eventually put her in charge of one of America’s most vital centers for aerospace and outer space research is a fascinating story of its own. According to Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ms. Perez-Davis grew up in a small, coffee-farming town in Puerto Rico that didn’t get its first stoplight until about 20 years ago. There weren’t many engineers around. But during her freshman year in high school, she learned what chemical engineers do and decided she wanted to become one. Ms. Perez-Davis got her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico in 1982, then landed a job at NASA Glenn in 1983. She’s been there ever since, and said she loves it. “I never in my wildest dreams thought I would become the center director. There are a lot of people along the way who created challenges and opportunities,” said Ms. Perez-Davis, who also holds a doctoral degree in chemical engineering from Case Western Reserve University. “It is an honor to lead an organization as prestigious as NASA Glenn, and I don’t take that lightly.” As NASA Glenn’s director, Ms. Perez-Davis oversees a facility of 3,200 employees with an annual budget of $933 million and an estimated $1.4 billion impact on northern Ohio’s economy. When NASA announced on Jan. 24 that it was making her the center’s permanent director, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said she looks forward “to working closely with Dr. Perez-Davis, as NASA Glenn enters into a new era of exploration, discovery, and job-creating innovation.” NASA Glenn is one of 10 field centers the space agency has across the country. The Plum Brook facility in Erie County’s Perkins Township, near Sandusky, is part of NASA Glenn. Both are doing research vital to achieving the Trump Administration’s goal of returning astronauts to the moon in 2024 — including the first woman — from jet propulsion to noise vibration studies. The site in Cleveland is even developing flexible mesh tires made of metal for lunar modules, with help from engineers in the tire industry. An update on those and NASA’s eventual plans to launch manned missions to Mars and beyond in the mid-to-late 2030s will be provided at news conferences in Washington and various research centers on Monday, including NASA Glenn. Ms. Perez-Davis told The Blade these are “very exciting times” for NASA, which soon expects to be “inspiring and motivating future generations” through its Artemis missions. NASA announced last year that Artemis will be the name of its upcoming moon missions. In Greek mythology, Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo. NASA chose Artemis as the name for its new era of missions to recognize how women have become more involved with science and technology over the past half-century. “The Artemis program is going to do what the Apollo program did,” Ms. Perez-Davis said. “I’m looking forward to continuing the collaboration with Ohio. It is a bright future.” Space travel gets more headlines. But she predicted aeronautic propulsion itself is on the cusp of a new era that will bring heavier use of electric motors and far fewer climate-altering carbon emissions. The trend for airplanes will mirror that which is starting to become more popular with automobiles, she said. “We’re moving more into electrifying propulsion. It will reduce emissions and open new markets for suppliers,” Ms. Perez-Davis said, adding that the aerospace industry is “going to look a lot different 25 years from now.” The Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft arrived at NASA Glenn’s Plum Brook Station in November. Designed by U.S. and European scientists, it is in the midst of four months of testing there. Among other things, engineers are analyzing how the Orion spacecraft holds up under extreme temperature variances akin to what’s in outer space, as well as how resilient the spacecraft is to electromagnetic influences. No astronauts will be aboard during the Artemis 1 mission when the spacecraft is to orbit Earth’s moon this fall as a test run. But Orion is to have astronauts on board for NASA’s Artemis 2, Artemis 3, and other Artemis missions. Plans call for Orion to encircle the moon with four astronauts during the Artemis 2 mission in 2022. Then the plan is to have the spacecraft land in 2024 on the lunar surface. It is to be the first time astronauts will walk on the moon since the final Apollo mission in 1972, three years after Ohio native Neil Armstrong made history in July, 1969, as the first man to do so. NASA vows to have at least one female astronaut aboard Artemis 3 and, thus, make history as the first woman to step on the moon. NASA further intends to establish an outpost on the moon by 2028, one that will lay the foundation for a manned spacecraft to Mars sometime in the 2030s and, eventually, beyond the Red Planet. The space agency has said there could be as many as 12 Artemis missions. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a visit to Cleveland last June that the United States will lead “a coalition of nations” on its Artemis missions. Some will include manned visits to the mysterious far side of the moon; others harvesting water ice. Hydrogen and oxygen from the water ice could be used to help make rocket fuel, he said. Mr. Bridenstine has said astronauts will have “access to every part of the moon” with robots, lunar landers, and lunar rovers. Water ice — hundreds of millions of tons of it — was discovered on the moon’s south pole after the Apollo program. The discovery could provide a significant gateway to other space travel while offering more clues about the solar system’s early days, according to Mr. Bridenstine.

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