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As a child, Kavya Manyapu would stare into the night sky above Hyderabad, India. Her father would identify the different stars. He would tell her about man’s first steps on the moon. He would fuel her dream to become an astronaut. Later this month, Manyapu will spend two weeks on Mars — or, at least, the closest thing on Earth to Mars.

The Mars Desert Research Station in Utah draws aeronautical engineers such as Manyapu, geologists, physicians and astro-biologists to its small cylindrical habitat, where research for the first human mission to Mars is taking place. The station is a prototype for the base that astronauts could use on Mars.

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Think a mission to Mars will never happen?

What did you study?

Kavya Manyapu earned her bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech and her master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Today, she is a flight test engineer at The Boeing Company, working on the NASA Commercial Crew program for the CST-100, one of the spacecraft slated to replace NASA’s space shuttle to the International Space Station.

Helping to build and design a space capsule would be an amazing experience, but building and designing a space capsule that you might one day sit in would be unthinkable. Not for Kavya Manyapu.

Kavya, a flight test engineer on Boeing’s CST-100 commercial crew capsule, has wanted to be an astronaut since she can remember.

“As a child it was more like a dream that, ‘Hey I want to go to the moon!'” she said.

But that dream is becoming more and more real.

Kavya moved from India to the U.S. to get a college education, and has been preparing to become an astronaut ever since by scuba diving, getting her private pilot’s license, and practicing aerobatics, or aircraft flying maneuvers. She was even selected as one of 400 “highly qualified” applicants out of nearly 7,000 during the last astronaut application process.

“It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon, so I’m preparing myself everyday to get there,” said Kavya.

A full-scale mockup of the capsule is being assembled in Houston, Texas. Melanie Weber, a structural and mechanical design engineer on the CST-100, said the capsule design will lower the cost of space exploration.

“Designing a capsule is more efficient than a shuttle design, the turnaround is shorter, and we will be able to reuse the capsule many times, — the fact that it can land on land is what makes it reusable,” said Weber.

Engineers are using the mockup to test and re-test capsule component, ensuring the vehicle is built right the first time.

“Because of the feedback we get from NASA, the feedback we get from our other engineers and test subjects, we can iterate the design quickly, re-prototype, reinsert it into the mockup, then validate the design, so that on Day One when we launch this vehicle, we have the right vehicle launching safely and well-designed,” said Tony Castilleja, a CST-100 mechanical engineer.

The next astronaut application period won’t open for two to three years, but Kavya said she will apply. In the meantime, she’ll continue preparing to fulfill her childhood dream.

“I’m looking forward to that day,” said Kavya.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Kavya Manyapu could be just another ordinary woman in her mid twenties. Only she isn’t. Growing up in Alwal, the student of St. Ann’s, Bolarum dreamt of the skies and was fascinated by the stars. Today, the 28-year-old is right up there, an inspiration for many.

Kavya is the lone Indian woman flight test engineer on the team developing Boeing’s commercial space exploration flight for NASA. The project, meanwhile, is one that has caught the attention of experts from around the world.

“People wish to travel in space and it will be a reality one day. I am excited to be a part of the project,” Kavya told The Hindu in an exclusive chat.

One of these spacecrafts, the STS-100, is slated to replace NASA’s space shuttle to the International Space Station. Kavya has contributed to the design and development of the STS-100’s cockpit display and its safe exit strategies.

Tell us about your career path

After moving to the US in 2002, Kavya earned herself a BS in Aerospace Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and later an MS in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the prestigious MIT. She has worked on several space projects for NASA, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, MIT, and Georgia Tech and on Human Mars exploration programmes.

In 2010, she was selected to be a crew member for Analog Mars Mission, a project set in the Mars Desert Research Station in USA’s Utah State. The project intended to develop technologies for human exploration of Mars, something Kavya is excited about.

“I may not see humans going to Mars in my lifetime, but I am excited that I am a part of such a project on Earth,” she says.

She completed her PhD (Aeronautics & Astronautics) from North Dakota University

What do you do?

 Kavya Manyapu lived and conducted experiments as an astronaut would on Mars at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

 Despite having to endure a broken toilet, lousy food and fifteen days in a cramped research station in the Utah desert, a Boeing engineer says she’s still enthusiastic about one day making a trip to Mars.

“It was a very collaborative environment,” Manyapu said. “We’re all working toward space exploration but are working on our own contributions.”

The engineer, Kavya Manyapu, told The Daily Herald that the location of the Mars Desert Research Station really looks like Mars. And the adventure through the Mars Society presented some of the same experiences astronauts are expected to face on a two-year space mission.

 The Mars Society was established to help identify and solve problems associated with a mission to Mars – a trip that would take about two years.

The six astronauts had to repair their toilet and conserve water while they conducted tests on growing bacteria. They also put on space suits to venture outside to gather soil samples. Crew members shared a space that’s just 26-feet in diameter.

And at the end of the fifteen days?

“We were all wishing we could stay for another fifteen.”

What would she tell young Indian dreamers?

 “If you have a passion for something, go for it. Perseverance pays and sky is the limit.”