Every time an astronaut puts on an American spacesuit to conduct a spacewalk at the International Space Station, they pass through a portal installed in part by Janet Kavandi.
It isn’t the only thing the former astronaut did that changed the work of her successors in space. After three missions to orbit, Dr. Kavandi moved into NASA administration, eventually overseeing how astronauts were selected. She’s credited with adding fairness to a process that for the first time chose an astronaut class that included as many women as men.
So when Dr. Kavandi, 60, retired on Monday as director of Glenn Research Center, a Cleveland, Ohio facility that designs innovative technologies for NASA, she left not only a legacy in human spaceflight, but also a moon-sized hole for the agency to fill.
Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida, called her a role model for women serving in leadership roles at NASA in the future.
“That next female is not plowing new ground,” he said, “just going down the already existing path.”
Dr. Kavandi said she was leaving for personal and practical reasons. At 60, she was eligible for retirement, and she also looked forward to earning more income for her family at Sierra Nevada Corporation’s space systems division.
Her departure comes as NASA is switching into higher gear to meet a mandate set by the Trump administration of returning American astronauts — the next man and the first woman — to the moon by 2024. It also was announced following other major personnel changes.
In July, Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, reassigned William Gerstenmaier, an official who for years oversaw human spaceflight. Lawmakers criticized the move, and some analysts saw the change as a demotion. In April, Mark Sirangelo joined NASA to aid Mr. Bridenstine on the Artemis moon mission. He left after just 44 days.
Last year Mr. Bridenstine sought to have Dr. Kavandi nominated as the No. 2 official at NASA. “I was fully aware that this was not in any way a ‘done deal,’ so I had no expectations,” she said.
President Trump instead nominated James Morhard, a former deputy sergeant-at-arms in the Senate with no previous space technology experience.
She said she was not disappointed that the deputy administrator job went to Mr. Morhard.
But her retirement leaves NASA with one fewer woman in senior leadership. Lori Garver, NASA’s former deputy administrator and founder of the Brooke Owens Fellowship, which matches undergraduate women with aerospace industry internships, estimates that less than 15 percent of the agency’s top roles are filled by women.
“When there is such an imbalance at the top, the culture tends to favor men, and women often struggle to be heard or have their views taken seriously,” she said.
NASA said diversifying its leadership and astronaut corps is a priority.
“The agency’s continued efforts to diversify the STEM pipeline will ensure women’s important contributions to NASA will grow and will inspire the next generation of leaders,” said Allard Beutel, director of public engagement and multimedia.
Cassville to Orbit
As a 6-year-old, Dr. Kavandi stretched across her parents’ back porch in Cassville, Mo., and stared at the stars. She wondered if, from up there, she could see her house.
Her father told her one day she could find out: Humans were already exploring space, he said, looking down to Earth from capsules zipping across the sky like shooting stars.
“I kept that in the back of my mind for my entire life,” she said, “until it became possible for me to apply.”
She pursued bachelor and master’s degrees in chemistry at Missouri Southern State University. Above her desk, she hung a chalkboard sign and wrote “never give up” in block letters, then tacked a picture of the first untethered spacewalk by Bruce McCandless beside it.
“Just to be free-floating up there, no tether to the shuttle, I thought that was so cool — to be a satellite yourself,” Dr. Kavandi said.
She later worked as an engineer at Eagle-Picher Industries, and then Boeing. While working there, she also pursued a doctorate. For her dissertation, she developed lift pressure-sensitive paint for airplanes, which would later be awarded a patent. “She did not take ‘no’ for an answer,” said James Callis, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and her academic adviser.
In 1994, Dr. Kavandi was one of 2,962 candidates to apply to the 15th corps of astronauts — and one of only 19 people and just five women to be accepted.
When she shot into space in 1998 on the space shuttle Discovery’s last trip to Mir, the since deorbited Soviet space station, the force pulled tears from her eyes and into her ears, where they pooled like puddles.
She thought her father would be proud.
She flew with Wendy B. Lawrence, a retired Navy captain, who recalls Dr. Kavandi as composed and without ego.
“Janet was one of those people who instantly struck you as somebody who was very accomplished, very competent, fit right in,” she said, “hardly needed any adjustment period whatsoever.”
On Mir — jammed with boxes and instruments strapped to the walls by bungee cords, in corridors that smelled like a musty basement — Dr. Kavandi disliked the clutter, which often obstructed the view of Earth from the station’s windows.
That inspired her to work with other astronauts and the International Space Station’s planners to seek installation of the cupola observation module where visitors could better see and photograph the planet below.
On her final shuttle trip, Dr. Kavandi controlled a robotic arm to help install the station’s Quest airlock. Michael Gernhardt, who flew with Dr. Kavandi, said in an email that she navigated the mission’s complex choreography with precision and “quiet competence.”
Back on Earth
For the next dozen years, she served in a variety of roles at NASA until 2013, when she was appointed director of flight crew operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, led at the time by former astronaut Ellen Ochoa.
As chair of the 2013 astronaut class selection committee, Dr. Kavandi chose diverse members who had expressed a willingness to keep an open mind — people she felt confident would not try to influence other members’ choices based on their own favorite candidates or personal biases.
“It was pretty groundbreaking,” she said.
Dr. Kavandi had implored panelists to make fair and diverse choices. Although she never expressly told them to pick as many women as men, she explained, that’s what they did, narrowing a pool of 6,300 applicants to four men and four women, the first astronaut class balanced by gender.
In April, she was inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame, only the tenth woman to achieve that honor. (Only 57 NASA astronauts have been women.) And she’s excited to continue working on space in the private sector.
“I can still contribute to human spaceflight,” she said. “I can still continue to supply the space station, I can still make some pretty impressive contributions to making humanity better in that respect.”
While Dr. Kavandi’s time at NASA is over, her mark on the agency is likely to endure.
Mr. Bridenstine has said the first woman to walk on the moon will be an astronaut currently in the corps — and one who has already worked aboard the space station. At least two strong candidates were chosen in 2013 by Dr. Kavandi’s selection committee: Christina Koch and Anne McClain (Ms. McClain was recently the subject of complaints related to her divorce.)
And Dr. Kavandi has a favorite, but she’s not sharing.
“Had I still been in the corps, I would have loved to be one of those candidates, but my time is passed,” she said. “Whoever it is will be a really lucky person — not for the fame or anything, but just to know, wow, we finally made it there.”