Kelvin Manning ’02MS’s office is nestled among one of the most peaceful settings imaginable: in a wildlife refuge near miles and miles of beach. His job as deputy director at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) belies the surroundings. Exciting, yes. Peaceful, not exactly. It fits the man himself, because behind Manning’s undisturbed smile and easy laughter is a mind that never stops.
“I’m always trying to keep up, always trying to think a few steps ahead,” he says.
Manning’s idea of forward thinking is quite different than it is for most of us. He’s among the leaders at NASA helping to guide us back to the moon and eventually to Mars via the Artemis missions. That should be plenty for Manning to think about, but there’s more. He’s also planning the launch of the PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem) mission in January 2024 and for the next group of Commercial Crew astronauts to travel to the International Space Station in February 2024.
It’s enough to make most heads spin. Manning, however, is a picture of happiness and humility, even when he says, “When you’ve been immersed in the space program for more than 30 years, I don’t think you ever totally escape from it.”
He doesn’t necessarily want to escape from it. At night, he can go outside, look at the moon, and think, “We’re coming.” He sees the stars and planets farther out. “You’re next.” The closest he comes to bringing his thoughts back down to earth is during the hour-long commutes from his home in Oviedo, Florida, to KSC, and back. But even on those drives his thoughts eventually drift back into space.
“Some of my best ideas come to me while I’m driving,” Manning says. “I carry yellow stickie pads in my car so I can write them down — safely — always safely.”
One way to get Manning to tap the mental brakes is to ask a simple question: Why are you so excited about sending people to the moon more than 50 years after America’s first lunar walk? Manning pauses, not because he has to come up with an answer, but because this is the question that drives him. And he wants his answer to clearly communicate what stimulates his mind every single day.
“When we think of going back to the moon and then to Mars, to have that Star Trek experience, where will it all start? Where do people leave our planet? It starts right here,” Manning says from his office within proximity of the ocean, wild deer, and Launch Complex 39A, where the Space Launch System (SLS) is currently scheduled to send four astronauts on Artemis 2 to fly around the moon late next year. “In the history of humankind, only 12 people have walked on the moon and they all launched from here. If you combine the time they spent outside their spacecraft on the moon’s surface, it comes to just over three days. That’s like spending a long weekend in a rural area of Florida and thinking you’ve seen the entire world. There’s a lot more to explore and discover. To be part of it … wow. How cool is that?”
A kid named Kelvin Manning was living in Gary, Indiana, when Neil Armstrong became the first man to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969.
“People talk of that pivotal moment,” Manning says, “but it was late at night for me. I’m pretty sure my mother had sent me to bed.”
At the time, Manning’s father was serving the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The family didn’t have any exposure to an organization called NASA. They didn’t have any connections with astronauts or aerospace engineers. Dinner conversations rarely touched on the space program because it seemed to be happening in an unattainable realm.
Manning’s first real glimpse of human possibilities beyond Earth didn’t come until he received an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy. After graduation, he spent six years as an officer working as a space operations analyst. His experience led to jobs at GE Aerospace and McDonnell Douglas, where his awe for “the NASA meatball” grew. After he landed a job at KSC in 1992 to work on the space shuttle program, he would be positioned to be among the first to hear about a new Constellation program that would become known as Artemis.
“That’s when I realized we were going back to the moon,” Manning says, “and I was going to be a part of it.”
To be a strong leader in our next journey into space, however, Manning knew he needed to go back to school. “A lot had transpired since I’d graduated from the Academy 20 years earlier. My peers at KSC would sometimes use unfamiliar terms and acronyms, so I had to up my game.”
He didn’t have to go back to school, though, because the school came to him. Professors from UCF were driving to KSC to teach a master’s program in engineering management.
“The presence of [UCF’s] instructors fed right into the NASA culture,” Manning says, “which is to stay curious, continuously learn, keep innovating, always move forward. Without the master’s from UCF, I’d have less understanding about leadership and less knowledge from a technical standpoint.”
To this day, he uses one of the acronyms he learned to help improve processes: PDSA, which stands for Plan-Do-Study-Act. Manning doesn’t always need to explain what it means because so many of his peers completed the same UCF master’s program. Nearly 30% of KSC’s employees have degrees from UCF.
“We speak the same language,” Manning says, “like ‘Go Knights. Charge on.’”
That kind of optimism overshadows any pressure Manning might feel. Yes, there’s a lot at stake for the deputy director, but his perspective guides his demeanor.
“I’m blessed to work for the best government agency,” he says, referring to a Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey that’s ranked NASA the best large agency in the federal government for 11 consecutive years. Manning’s perspective, however, stretches much wider than knowing he has a good job at a nice place.
“As a kid looking at anything related to space on TV, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. Now, everyone can look and be inspired. For the Artemis 2 mission we’re sending Victor Glover, an African American astronaut, to the moon. We’re sending Christina Koch, the first woman, to the moon. We’re sending Reid Wiseman and Jeremy Hansen, the first Canadian, to the moon. I’ve served on the past three astronaut selection panels and remember Victor and Christina from the class of 2013. To see how far they’ve come and to realize how far they’re about to go, how powerful is that? I feel like I’m with them all the way.”
When the official countdowns begin for the Artemis missions, Manning will stop thinking of his next steps and appreciate what is right in front of his eyes. He plans to watch history from the operations support building terrace across from the launch pad, a spot this kid never dreamed of from his bedroom in Gary, Indiana.
“This time,” Manning says, “I want to be where I can see it, feel it, and know I’m part of our space story.”