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Portrait of Anna Menon
Anna Menon will fly aboard SpaceX's Polaris Dawn Mission, which could launch as early as this July. Photo by Polaris Program/John Kraus; SpaceX

Ready for Liftoff

Biomedical engineer Anna Menon’s atypical path to space flight included a stopover at Pratt

When biomedical engineer Anna Menon MS ’10 takes her first flight into space, she hopes to make the highest Earth orbit ever flown. But she’s already flying mighty high, as she prepares to fulfill a childhood dream.

“I feel incredibly excited,” she says of being a crew member on SpaceX’s Polaris Dawn Mission, which is scheduled to launch as early as this summer. She’s eager to be among the stars and to tackle the trip’s objectives, including high-altitude flight, the first commercial space walk and about 40 research experiments. The mission, the first of three in a series, will last up to five days.

Menon, a Houston native, is the daughter of a geologist and a paleontologist who imparted an early love of science and the world around her. But it was a fourth-grade field trip to the NASA Johnson Space Center that got her hooked on space. She spent the day role playing an astronaut and a flight controller.

 “I fell in love with space exploration and the team environment of it,” she says.

The four-person crew of the Polaris Dawn Mission
Clockwise from top left: Menon with her Polaris Dawn Mission colleagues, Jarred Isaacman, Scott Poteet and Sarah Gillis.

Today she praises the “tremendous team of brilliant engineers and scientists at SpaceX” who are making the upcoming trip possible. “I am excited to see their work come to fruition and to work hand-in-hand with them to execute this mission.”

Menon’s master’s in biomedical engineering, from Duke’s Pratt School, might not at first seem directly related to space. But she is quick to point out that, “as long as we have people in space, we will need engineers and doctors keeping them safe.”

This was brought home to her in a Duke course called Physiology and Medicine in Extreme Environments. “It taught about scuba diving and high-altitude medicine, but also gave a glimpse into space medicine,” she says.

Menon came to Duke with a bachelor’s degree in math and Spanish from Texas Christian University. Although that was not the most typical preparation for her graduate major, she says, “One thing that stood out to me about Duke was how their bioengineering program welcomed people from all types of backgrounds.”

The Polaris crew experiencing weightlessness.
The Polaris Dawn Mission crew experience weightlessness in training.

At Duke, she says, she gained invaluable skills in complex problem-solving and engineering fundamentals that continue to serve her well. And while on campus she pursued her love of salsa dancing as a member of the Sabrosura team.

While a grad student, she already had in mind combining her interests in medicine and space. She interned at NASA, where she met a biomedical engineer flight controller for the International Space Station. “I knew that was a job I wanted,” she recalls.

After completing her master’s, she spent seven years at NASA on a team of engineers supporting the medical hardware and software on the International Space Station and the astronauts as they used it.

Anna Menon in the cockpit
Menon in a jet cockpit.

When her husband, Anil Menon, a former NASA flight surgeon and current NASA astronaut, took a job at SpaceX in 2018, she joined him there. Today, she is a senior space operations engineer and mission director, as well as in training for her flight.

Like her parents, Menon and her husband have introduced their two young children to the natural world. The kids are excited about mom’s adventure. To help them feel close while she’s away, Menon has written a children’s book, “Kisses From Space,” about a mama dragon who goes to space. The copy Menon takes on the mission will be auctioned off to benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, recipient of the mission’s fundraising.

Meanwhile, her children have a great role model for following their dreams.

“I have always believed it is important to pay attention to what you enjoy and what you are good at and let that guide your decisions about how to contribute to this world,” Menon says.