NASA Material
A black and white image of a spacesuit lying on a table

During her internship at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio, Vasana Maneeratana conducted research on materials used in Apollo spacesuits. The suit in this image was worn by Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean. Image Credit: NASA

Upon graduating from high school, Vasana Maneeratana wanted to be it all -- a scientist, writer, artist and historian. She started down a path to be a doctor. That path led her to an interest in biomedical research and materials, to advanced degrees in Materials Science & Engineering, and to internships at two NASA centers where she worked on space telescopes and spacesuits.

In which NASA student opportunity project(s) did you participate, and how did you get involved?

In 2005, I was awarded the NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship. In addition, I served two tours with NASA during my graduate career at the University of Florida.

In 2005, I served at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center with the Materials Engineering Branch with Dr. Dan Polis as a NASA ACCESS (Achieving Competence in Computing, Engineering, and Space Science)/AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Entrypoint! program intern.

In 2006, I served an extended research stay at NASA Glenn Research Center with the Polymeric Materials Branch with Dr. Michael Meador and Dr. Mary Ann Meador as a NASA ACCESS/AAAS Entrypoint! program intern (run by the Lewis' Educational and Research Collaborative Internship Program) and with a NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship Mini Research Award.

Explain the research you conducted through your NASA involvement, why this topic is important, and what was the most exciting part of your research.

In the beginning of my NASA involvement, I was interested in applying my materials engineering skills. Graduate school was a wonderful avenue, but I also needed to see a different perspective. With some luck, I came across the American Association for the Advancement of Science Entrypoint! program and enthusiastically applied. This time, the work would be based more on structural analysis with applications of my materials engineering skills.

In 2005, I worked with Dr. Dan Polis at Goddard Space Flight Center to assist in the thrust of engineering structural components for the James Webb Space Telescope. The motivation of this work was to optimize joint strength in Invar/carbon fiber composite bonded assemblies. Various chemical and mechanical treatments were used to modify Invar adherend surfaces. A technique called confocal microscopy was used to evaluate these surface morphologies, or surface features. The morphological data, along with other parameters, was correlated with subsequently measured sample joint strengths. Correlating performance to more fundamental input variables is valuable when optimizing material systems for demanding applications, such as the cryogenic structure of the James Webb Space Telescope.

In 2006, my involvement was more multifaceted. Along with looking to gain further experiences with my materials engineering skills, I also looked to support my research with my dissertation. Fortunately, I had met Dr. Michael Meador at a talk at my university before the start of the internship. Dr. Meador and I discussed various avenues in which we could pursue my research ideas, along with ideas in parallel with engineering projects in his branch. Then, again, I applied for the Entrypoint! program (via the Lewis' Educational and Research Collaborative Internship Program) and fortunately was matched with Dr. Meador. Simultaneously, I applied to the Mini Research Award under my fellowship (NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship). My goal was to truly broaden my scope at NASA and be involved with an extended research stay.

The fortunate part of my work at Glenn Research Center was the beauty in which the Entrypoint! project and the Mini Research Award blended and worked in harmony. When I arrived, support for new spacesuits was needed as part of the Vision for Space Exploration. Although there were many different concepts for the next-generation spacesuits, I was eager to take a different approach. As a materials engineer, we learned about reverse engineering; this concept involves taking apart something to its simplest form to learn how it was built or performed. Therefore, I wanted to explore reverse engineering of the Apollo-era spacesuits as a new method towards designing and selecting new materials for the next-generation spacesuits. This involved various exciting adventures with Dr. Mary Ann Meador and Dr. Michael Meador.

Six microscope images of spacesuit fibers

These microscopic images of the left knee of Apollo astronaut Alan Bean's spacesuit show the fiber weave of the spacesuit with lunar dust penetrating between the fibers. The images increase in magnification from top left to bottom right. Image Credit: NASA

During this time I tracked Apollo-era NASA spacesuit design documents, scientific and editorial opinions regarding lunar dust tribology, and any testing performed on post-flight suits and materials. I also initiated contact with the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute with Ms. Mary Ballard to be able to analyze the Apollo suits being preserved there. This work lead to such interesting ties with the various NASA centers regarding their different research areas of lunar dust, spacesuits and textile characterization. Here, we had to answer the fundamental, yet exciting, challenge in our hands: How do we analyze these suits while still preserving the suits?

During this time, my dissertation research was being supplemented. The totality of my doctoral work regarded direct electrospinning of continuous ceramic fibers utilizing a new approach to the precursor material selection. Using a modified aluminum alkoxide-based solution, I was now looking to apply this production of continuous bundles of hollow alumina fibers towards advancing spacesuit and insulation material production or repair. So my adventure to apply materials engineering skills at Glenn Research Center brought together my excitement for the dissertation and reverse engineering. Ultimately for my Glenn Research Center experience, I am glad to have been a part of NASA's new endeavor towards the next lunar and Mars missions through spacesuit support and direct electrospinning of ceramic fibers.

What is your current job?

I am a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces in the Department of Colloid Chemistry. My institute is located in Golm, Germany (right outside of Berlin, Germany).

What is your educational background?

At the University of Florida, I studied Materials Science & Engineering. My bachelor's of science specialized in polymeric materials. My master's of science focused on ceramics. My doctor of philosophy was in the field of low-temperature processing of ceramics by the development of a direct electrospinning technique with modified aluminum alkoxide-based precursors. All degrees were accomplished at the University of Florida.

What inspired you to choose the career field you did?

There wasn't one inspiration. When I left high school, I wanted to do everything. At that time, my desire to do everything was unmatched with the reality. I grew up with some health issues. These issues inspired me not to limit my skills to one thing but to always continually challenge myself. I enjoyed just about everything I studied, with the exception of a very few subjects. I wanted, and still want to be, a scientist, writer, artist, historian and so much more.

I started college with the desire to be a medical doctor. Since I have had my fair share of being in and out of hospitals, a doctor symbolized a discipline and a career that included science and the heart. However, I realized that this wasn’t quite the right path for me. I'm not so sure if there was one thing that changed my mind or more like a culmination of things ... but I started looking towards biomedical-related things. I settled on Materials Science & Engineering because it encompassed my enthusiasm for chemistry and taking it to the next step towards applications. I worked in various laboratories throughout my undergraduate career and found that my work in polymeric materials, in particular microparticles for drug delivery, really fueled my interests. My eyes were set to MSE.

I am always looking for new career options, so I continually looked at industry and graduate school. This interest in graduate school was propelled by the NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral award. Although academia will always have a special place in my heart, I can't help but try to stay involved and abreast in the areas of research between industry, academia and the in-betweens. I also knew this wasn't the end all and that there is a plethora of opportunities outside of the norm. I still keep in touch and assist in recruiting for the AAAS Entrypoint! program. Additionally, I used to serve on the AAAS Committee on Opportunities in Science. Currently, I serve as an advisor for the WAMC Northeast Public Radio program on Women with Disabilities in Science.

What do you think are the most important things you took away from your involvement with NASA?

I learned that you should always believe in yourself by accepting your fallbacks and successes one step at a time. NASA and so many other avenues provide so much support, and the right match can really move mountains. Students with disabilities can often fall in a trap in believing in their limitations, but sometimes investment in oneself, solving problems a little at a time, searching out for opportunities, interacting with people and finding a support network can dispel limitations and make possibilities infinite. With NASA, I took control of my life by finding new opportunities, meeting amazing colleagues and taking part in new avenues for my various interests and skills.

How do you think your NASA involvement has affected your career?

I wouldn't be where I am without my opportunities with NASA. There isn't one single event that I can pinpoint, but the culmination of the experiences garnered through the NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship, NASA ACCESS and AAAS Entrypoint! program completely changed my life. These experiences gave me a chance to truly find myself with a continual renewal of curiosity, confidence, vigor and joy.

What are your future plans?

I have many future plans, but if I had to list just a few, they would be as follows: One of my goals is continually supporting building inclusion architecture for students with disabilities along with underrepresented students in science. Another is to continually contribute to the fabric of sustainable science for new energy-based applications by researching schemes for processing and materials selection by an understanding of green chemistry principles.

What advice would you have for other students who are interested in becoming involved with, or working for, NASA?

Try your very best in searching for opportunities and put forth the very best effort in your application materials. Challenge yourself by going above and beyond in your applications. Read about ongoing research at NASA and other institutions, find what really interests you, and ask yourself why! ... Wherever you are, you should always try to find interest and joy in what you do so you can always try to put forth your best effort.

Related Resources
Lewis' Educational and Research Collaborative Internship Program
NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship Project
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA Glenn Research Center
James Webb Space Telescope   →
NASA Education Web Site

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services