Spacesuit engineer uses lessons learned on Kansas farm in her space career
for The Fence Post
Creating products from the farm to the Moon may sound like a lofty goal, but for NASA spacesuit engineer Kristine Larson Davis, growing up on a Kansas farm provided a strong foundation that helped propel her space career.
Davis, from Galva, Kan., lives in the Houston, Texas, area now near her job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and is on a mission — preparing spacesuits that astronauts, including the first female, will wear heading to the Moon on the Artemis mission in 2024. She’s also preparing spacesuits for the eventual mission to Mars. Davis won’t be traveling that far out in orbit, but as a spacesuit engineer, her primary focus is to develop hardware that astronauts would use on the spacesuit. (someone is only an astronaut if training to be one, or has already traveled to space.)
Davis is on one of the teams working on the spacesuit.
“The team I am on is the Pressure Garment System, which is the pressurized portion of the spacesuit, and the part of the suit the crew member would wear,” Davis said. She’s also the component manager for the xEMU Helmet, Extravehicular Visor Assembly (EVVA) which is the ‘sunglasses’ for the spacesuit, and the Waist/Hip Assembly.
Growing up on a farm in McPherson County, Kansas, about an hour north of Wichita, imparted life lessons that continue propelling Davis today, through her space career.
“Growing up on a farm teaches you about hard work., that things take time because after several months you get the end product.” Down at the Larson family farm, Kristine’s father and oldest brother grow wheat, soybeans, grain sorghum and alfalfa, and have 75 cow/calf pairs. “They also work full-time at the CHS refinery in McPherson, Kan. My dad is a chemist, and my brother is an engineer there.”
The youngest of four kids, Davis and her siblings participated in 4-H, which improved Davis’s communication skills.
“Learning at a young age how to make a presentation in front of a crowd and how to document your projects was a big life lesson that still helps me today.” Attending 4-H camps was the highlight of her young summers. Davis learned many life skills including sewing, cooking, crocheting, photography and raising a special bucket calf named Buster.
“Buster’s ears had frostbite, he was born so early and he was a twin, so the momma cow didn’t realize there was a second calf. Buster got so big (nearly 300 pounds) that when it was time to show him in the fair ring, I had to work pretty hard to get him to walk being led on a harness,” Davis said. Her hard work in agriculture paid off. “He weighed more, got more money, and my dad always gave us half the money, which was exciting at that age.”
Davis also learned just how much farmers counted on people working at grain elevators.
“My first job was working at a grain elevator, which was fun. I climbed a ladder and took manual samples from the grain trucks. One person almost drove away while I was hanging over, taking a sample,” Davis said. “I learned a lot about wheat prices, and how farmers would count on us.”
Whether in farm boots on the ground or spacesuit boots heading to the Moon, being reliable and exploring opportunities paved the way for Davis’s chosen career.
When the NASA crew heads to the Moon in 2024, it will take three days to get there, three more to return to earth, and Davis expects the crew will work on the Moon for one day or more.
“They’ll also investigate ice on the South Pole,” said Davis, noting, “A lunar investment will create new jobs and help improve life here on Earth. We will inspire a new generation and encourage careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.)”
The spacesuit design depends on whether the astronaut is walking on the surface of the moon, picking up rocks, or like the current spacesuit — designed for floating and using hands and arms to fix things,
There are two types of spacesuits, Intravehicular Activity (IVA), which a crew member wears in the vehicle for launch, landing and docking. This protects the crew member in emergency situations such as the capsule losing pressure.
“EVA stands for Extravehicular Activity involving taking a spacewalk outside your vehicle. This protects the crew from the harsh environment of the vacuum of space,” Davis said.
Davis, who graduated from Kansas State University in December 2015 with a mechanical engineering degree and participated in four internships with NASA, also has her eyes on another exhilarating mission.
“Mars; (no exact date yet) is a long — term mission, but we’re hoping we’ll learn a lot from Artemis,” Davis said. Artemis, the Greek goddess of the Moon, was the twin of Apollo.
Ultimately, the Mars mission will be a three-year project, since Davis noted it takes six to nine months to get there, an undetermined amount of time while there, and six to nine months back.
“We also have a separate program, Gateway, which will come before Artemis. Gateway will launch in the next couple of years as a floating laboratory around the moon, similar to the international space station that’s in space now, and we want to establish a similar platform that’s orbiting around the Moon.”
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Davis continues preparations for the space launches.
“There’s a lot of paperwork getting the hardware ready for flights, so I’m able to keep pretty productive,” Davis said.
Davis participated in four different NASA internships while attending Kansas State University including mission control, day to day operations, and spacesuit engineering where she currently works. “My first K-State internship with another aerospace company confirmed an engineering career was right for me. I encourage folks in whatever degree field they are in, to participate in an internship program or shadow hours while in school because it helps confirm you’ll enjoy the career after college,” Davis said. Going to space camp while in middle school was also pivotal.
Amy Ross, the team lead for the Pressure Garment System team for the xEMU spacesuit, enjoyed the opportunity to attend her friend’s wedding in Kansas.
“When I visited Kris’ home town in Kansas during her wedding, just looking around, if you didn’t know Kris, you wouldn’t necessarily assume that a future in the U.S. space program was an obvious choice. However, her story reminds me that determination, hard work, and a little inspiration do make dreams come true. Kris decided that she wanted to work for NASA, and brings that kind of purpose and excitement to the Johnson Space Center every day. Just look at her smiling from ear to ear in the Exploration space suit at NASA Headquarters standing next to the NASA Administrator. If that isn’t a dream come true, I don’t know what is,” Ross said.
Not only is Davis assisting in preparations for the Moon, Mars and back, she hopes the commercial industry will get on board with their own space dreams.
“I’m hoping the commercial industry would have low earth orbit — up at 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles),” she said. “Right now, NASA is supporting commercial partners including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Boeing to help develop the industry, because the more partners in space, the less NASA needs to focus on that technology and focus instead on the moon for the Artemis program.”
Growing up in a small Kansas town, “I enjoyed the wide, open spaces and I also loved looking up at the stars at night.” Davis’s parents encouraged her to explore opportunities. As the Kansas State motto goes, “Ad Astra per Aspera,” which is Latin for “To the Stars through Difficulties.”
Davis lives up to that motto, as she looks to the stars, and beyond. ❖
— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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