Falling through a cloud, Harsha Rayapati could see a layer of condensation on his arm. He was hurtling downward from 30,000 feet, oxygen mask strapped to his face and contents of his stomach trying to make their way to his throat.
Rayapati wasn’t dreaming. The aerospace engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center was in the midst of a tandem skydive. Rayapati made his first jump from 12,000 feet in 2012, got the itch for something more, and made two dives from 30,000 feet in 2018.
“I equate it to jumping off a tall diving board, but it’s jumping off the tall diving board, on steroids,” said Rayapati, a self-described adrenaline junkie who has also kayaked among killer whales in the Puget Sound along the coast of Washington state. “Once you get into free fall, it’s just like sticking your head out of the window of a car and the breeze going through – a little bit stronger than that.”
What would possess someone to take leaps from such dizzying heights? For Rayapati, it stems from his fascination of flying. He became interested in planes when, as a child, he flew twice from his native India to the United States. Rayapati dreamed of becoming a pilot, but he was born with achondroplasia, a genetic disorder that causes dwarfism, which made such a career impossible at that time. During a childhood flight in 1994, he got to visit the cockpit of a British Airways 747-400. There he met the flight engineer – an encounter that set Rayapati’s new career ambitions in motion.
“I was like, ‘I may not be able to be a pilot because of my physiology,” Rayapati said, “but I bet I could be a flight engineer.’ In the years after that, it morphed into aerospace engineer.”
Growing up, Rayapati was teased because of his physical condition. His mother, Lakshmi Movva, was a source of motivation.
“Whenever I was down, because I would let people’s comments get to me,” Rayapati recalled, “she would say, ‘It’s not how you look, it’s how smart you are. Can you think smart and get things accomplished? If you can, the world is yours.’ When I started seeing that my passion and interest for aerospace was there, I just started believing in myself more and did not care for what other people said.”
In 1999, at the age of 12, Rayapati moved to Athens, Georgia, where his father, Naidu Rayapati, was a plant pathologist at the University of Georgia. The younger Rayapati went on to earn a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech in Atlanta in 2008. Following graduation, he spent 6½ years as a Department of Defense contractor, working with unmanned aerial vehicles. He joined Marshall as a contractor in 2015 and became a NASA civil servant in 2018.
“There have been many times when I was judged by my physical look,” said Rayapati, who earned a master’s in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 2013. “Other times, people had low expectations of what I could produce. But, what they quickly find out is that I’m actually a lot smarter than what my body says I am.”
Rayapati started a detail with the Human Landing System program in July. As Avionics discipline lead, he manages a 20-person team representing four NASA centers that helps with the solicitation process, reviewing the avionics designs for the three vendors.
Prior to his detail, Rayapati worked on the Space Launch System Imagery Integration Team. The first SLS rocket configuration – Block 1 – has eight cameras attached, which will capture imagery to aid in the assessment of the rocket’s performance apart from instrumentation data, and help design engineers make adjustments for future flights. The team was also responsible for making sure that ground cameras captured vital imagery.
Coming to NASA gave Rayapati the opportunity to work with some of the people who inspired him growing up, including co-workers in the SLS program who helped find what caused the Columbia accident in 2003. Among those on that flight was NASA astronaut Kalpana Chawla, an aerospace engineer who, like Rayapati, was a first-generation immigrant from India.
“Unfortunately, I only got to know about her after she passed away,” Rayapati said. “I used that as motivation to come to NASA. Achieving the goal and working with some of the same people, it’s kind of coming full circle. Once Artemis I launches, it will be like I paid tribute and homage to her and to all the engineers who got America back in the spaceflight business.”
Editor’s note: Daniel Boyette, an LSINC Corporation employee and the Marshall Star editor, supports Marshall’s Office of Strategic Analysis & Communications.