Air Force Academy grad embraces new NASA role, future of spaceflight

  • Published
  • By Jim Cawley
  • NASA’s Kennedy Space Center public Affairs

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - Kelvin Manning has served in several critical roles in his nearly 30 years at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. He was the Florida spaceport’s associate director for more than a decade. He also held multiple key positions within the Space Shuttle Program, was the first division chief for the agency’s Orion spacecraft, and served on the last three NASA astronaut candidate selection boards.

But his recent appointment as Kennedy’s deputy director brings with it perhaps the greatest challenges, opportunities, and excitement yet.

“There is a lot more responsibility resting on my shoulders – and I feel that,” Manning said. “But it’s an honor to have that level of responsibility and be able to lead this team in such a critical time in our nation’s history with regard to spaceflight.”

Working in tandem with Kennedy Director Janet Petro, Manning is helping guide the varied programs based at America’s multi-user spaceport into a new era of space exploration. NASA’s Artemis missions, which will launch from Kennedy, will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, preparing the way for long-term lunar exploration and sending the first astronauts to Mars. Gateway Deep Space Logistics will send cargo and supplies for crew to the Gateway outpost in lunar orbit in support of lunar operations in orbit and on the surface.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program partners with U.S. private industry to provide safe, reliable, and cost-effective human transportation to and from the International Space Station from U.S. soil. NASA’s Launch Services Program is launching payloads that further the study of our planet, the frontiers of space, the Sun, and Mars.

Manning’s interest and exposure to NASA came a bit later in life. He was a boy at the time of NASA’s Apollo 11 Moon landing, though his focus was elsewhere, as his father was serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. After the war, he and his family settled in Aberdeen, Maryland, when his father was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground Army post. Manning lived in the small, quaint town just north of Baltimore from fourth grade through high school.

A graduate of Aberdeen High School, Manning was one year ahead of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., known as Major League Baseball’s “Iron Man” for playing in a record 2,632 consecutive major league games. Manning – who was a high school soccer teammate of Ripken – has a playful theory on that.

“My story is, Kelvin taught Calvin how to play through pain,” Manning said jokingly, “that’s why he’s baseball’s ‘Iron Man.’”

According to Manning, Ripken displayed the type of grit and determination that was prevalent in an area filled with positive role models and disciplined military influence.

“It was a great place to grow up,” Manning said. “It had that hard work ethic, being humble, and not being too big for your britches.”

After high school, Manning enlisted in the Air Force Academy. There, he learned invaluable lessons about leadership as a cadet first sergeant and a cadet squadron commander his senior year. He also had the strong influence of his parents.

“Coming in early, staying late, going the extra mile … the sense of faith and integrity – those were huge in my family,” Manning said.

The NASA connection came for Manning when, after serving six years as an Air Force officer and space operations analyst, he had the opportunity to support a contractor working for NASA. Manning worked as an engineer with General Electric Aerospace in Springfield, Virginia, and McDonnell Douglas Space Systems in Washington, D.C., before making the move to Kennedy in 1992.

A married father of two, Manning has earned several awards in his NASA career, including the Presidential Meritorious Rank Award, NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the astronauts’ Silver Snoopy Award. Another honor that is particularly special to Manning is his National Black Engineer of the Year Award for Outstanding Technical Achievement in Government.

“This one holds a high place,” Manning said, “but at the same time, it serves as a reminder that I’m a role model and I’m here to show other people what they can do.”

When the 1995 movie “Apollo 13” was being filmed at Kennedy, Manning was a test director working in the Launch Control Center. The employees got word that movie directors were looking for extras; however, Manning was not eligible because he was not historically correct for the scene they were shooting.

“I use that as motivation, where I don’t want that to ever happen to anybody else,” Manning said. “Now, if they’re filming a scene for the shuttle program and someone says, ‘You can’t be in it,’ the person can say, ‘I can do that – Kelvin was there.’”

Manning possesses an uncanny ability to put a name with a face. He could meet you one time, in a hallway, talk to you for two minutes, and call you by name the next time he sees you – six months later. How does he do it? Playing an association game, taking notes on his phone, and getting a good night’s sleep all factor in, he claims. But one thing is for certain – he works hard at the skill.

“Knowing somebody’s name goes for miles; it’s such a simple thing, but it can be a huge thing,” he said. “It can really make somebody’s day. They’ll wonder, ‘How do you know my name?’ ‘Because you’re important to me.’”

Anyone who has spent time with Manning knows his natural expression all too well. It’s the gesture seemingly always present on his face – glowing, infectious, and genuine. It’s the one that has helped make him successful at every level of his professional career.

“It’s the Manning smile. My parents, everyone in my family … we’ve all got that Manning smile. It’s just having that positive outlook on life,” he said. “To me, the glass is always half full. We are truly blessed. Joyful and blessed – that’s the attitude.”