TALKING WITH STUDENTS ABOUT space, Mars, and engineering is one of Michelle Munk’s passions.
“If I can inspire someone by being a female engineer, I’m happy to share everything that I can,” she said.
Munk, a 1991 Virginia Tech aerospace engineering graduate, is an entry, descent, and landing capability lead for NASA who helps to determine and maintain the technology, tools, and other equipment required for space missions. Based at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, Munk’s work supports a number of initiatives, including Artemis, a mission to send the first woman and person of color to the moon.
When Munk was young, she wanted to become an airplane pilot, but that dream changed once she realized that she would need 20/20 vision. Then, Munk learned about a distant cousin—a Virginia Tech alumnus who worked at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. After spending some time at Wallops herself, Munk set course to study at Virginia Tech and ultimately to work for NASA.
As a student, Munk participated in a co-op program with Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The experience positioned her for a job at Johnson following graduation.
That’s when Munk’s focus turned to the logistics of getting humans to Mars.
“It’s been the pervasive long-term goal and challenge ever since I got to NASA,” Munk said, noting that the numerous robotic missions to Mars are helping NASA prepare for the eventuality of human travel.
While at Johnson, Munk developed her first flight hardware, a moding indicator for the International Space Station. The spaceflight electrical connector with LED lights prompted astronauts to turn off the station’s control system when a space shuttle got too close.
If I can inspire someone by being a female engineer, I’m happy to share everything that I can.”
Virginia Tech alum
Designing the hardware “was a huge eyeopener for me, and I was lucky to have that experience,” Munk said. “You could go your whole career doing concepts and never work on something that could fly.”
Recently, Munk developed a project to use cameras to capture stereo images of craters that form on the moon during a space vehicle’s descent and landing, as part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program. Data from the project will inform future missions.
Munk’s versatility is one of her many strengths, said Walt Engelund, deputy associate administrator for programs in the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA.
“She can go toe-to-toe with the most technical, detail-oriented engineer or scientist, and then, turn around and talk to a manager at the executive level and convey in much simpler terms the essence of the message or the technology,” he said. “That is a fairly unique skill set for an engineer.”
Meanwhile, Hokie roots run deep for Munk. She met her husband, Chris, at the university, and their two children are now Virginia Tech students.
Hokie alumni connections also are strong at Langley.
“When I’m in a meeting with someone I don’t know, and they impress me, I often find out that they are from Virginia Tech,” Munk said. “It’s a testament to the fact that Ut Prosim is alive and well. We all share those common loves of service and of technological excellence and pushing the boundaries.”