Cryo Legacy: Angela Krenn’s Reflections on Cryogenics and Space, a Trailblazer Revisited

Angela Krenn,, NASAIn our annual “Women in Cryogenics and Superconductivity” feature, Cold Facts explores the profound contributions of outstanding women in the field. Drawing on its popularity, we wanted to have a candid conversation, reconnecting with a trailblazing woman in cryogenics, previously spotlighted as one of our “Women in Cryogenics.” In this interview, Angela Krenn, with over 21 years of experience at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, offers an insightful glimpse into the industry's evolution over two decades and her impact on space exploration. Currently serving as the principal technologist for Thermal Management Systems and Surface Systems in the Space Technology Mission Directorate, Angela is at the forefront of developing investment strategies and coordinating technology advancements across NASA. In her role, she seamlessly transitioned from a focus on cryogenics to overseeing all thermal-related technology developments for the agency. Angela's expertise extends from extreme cooling for rocket fuel efficiency to ensuring instruments’ function in lunar exploration conditions. A Florida native, Angela's childhood dream of working for NASA became a reality and her commitment to identifying gaps in thermal technologies reflects her dedication. With a remarkable career that started with a dream job working with liquid hydrogen, Angela continues to inspire as a leader in advancing NASA’s capabilities for future space exploration and as a powerful role model to industry women. 

What inspired you to pursue a career in this specific area?

I never intended to pursue a career in cryogenics. I wasn’t even aware that cryogenics could be a career choice when I was making such decisions. However, as a bit of a dreamer, I find inspiration in a million little things every day. Influential figures like Christa McAuliffe and Sally Ride, as well as movies like October Sky and Apollo 13, have consistently inspired me. I also draw inspiration from deep within every time I gaze into the night sky. So when it came to making career choices, all I knew was that I wanted to contribute to the space shuttle program in any way possible. It was only by good fortune that my first job out of college landed me in the liquid hydrogen system, where I had the privilege of participating in cryogenic propellant tank loadings for the space shuttle's external tank. Falling in love with cryogenics has proven to be a remarkably rewarding experience. 

Over your more than two decades at NASA, you’ve had diverse roles, including operations, design, analysis and technology development. How have these experiences shaped your perspective on cryogenic systems?

Regardless of your role in cryogenics, physics presents essentially the same challenges. However, that might be where the commonality ends. There are fundamentally different objectives for a cryogenics operator than for an analyst/designer or a technologist. This leads to very different approaches to tackling problems and can sometimes create communication challenges when collaboration is necessary. I’ve learned that when faced with a technical challenge, it is vital to first establish a common understanding of the non-technical constraints, such as safety, risk tolerance, cost, schedule and reliability, along with operational life. 

Could you tell us more about your current role at NASA?

Currently, I am serving in a couple of different roles at NASA. I have been the principal technologist (PT) for Thermal Management Systems within the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) for the last three years. PTs develop investment strategies and technical content across the entire technology readiness level (TRL) pipeline. They also provide technical assessments for key project reviews and solicitation responses, coordinate with other capability teams and NASA mission directorates and maintain awareness of relevant emerging technologies across other government agencies, industry, academia and international partners. Additionally, I am serving as the technical integration lead within the Strategic Planning and Integration office. In this role, I interface with the lunar and Mars architecture teams throughout the Artemis architecture concept review process to ensure the appropriate new technologies are being developed and incorporated into NASA’s exploration plans. 

As a woman in a field that has traditionally been male dominated, have you encountered any specific challenges or obstacles in your career?

I have not really encountered too many gender-related impediments. Sometimes when I first cross paths with people, they may initially dismiss me, but I’ve found it relatively easy to earn the respect of my colleagues because of my technical depth and broad experience. 

Why do you think there aren’t as many women entering the fields of cryogenics and superconductivity (physics, engineering, aerospace, quantum, magnetics, materials, HTS, etc.), and what do you think can be done to encourage more women to pursue careers in these areas?

There generally are not classes focused on cryogenics in most college degree programs. Perhaps the lack of a broad understanding of the field and its enabling implications across many different areas results in fewer women entering the field. Including more niche areas, such as cryogenics, as electives in degree programs might help. Universities could also partner with industry to bring in guest lecturers to provide real-world insights into some of the opportunities that may not be as well known. I also believe it helps to start young by exposing elementary-age students to cryogenics, as well as other STEM areas. This could be an excellent way to attract women to the field. Classroom demonstrations using liquid nitrogen can be a fun and interesting way to get kids excited about cryogenics, and that interest may carry forward into future careers. 

How do you see the future of cryogenics and superconductivity evolving, especially in the context of space exploration?

From the perspective of extending human presence deeper into the solar system, the ability to store cryogens for extended durations in space and on the lunar and Martian surfaces will be critical. From a scientific standpoint, delving into our origins, the ability to return cryogenically cold samples to Earth will be crucial. The tools to make these feats possible are currently in development. New refrigerators, integrated heat exchangers, improved coatings and insulation, methods of reducing conductive loads and more, are all in progress. Achieving the vision of long-term cryogenic storage in space will provide a significant piece of the puzzle for turning the seemingly impossible into reality—enabling long-duration in-space transit of crews, in-space refueling, in-situ propellant production and storage, expanded scientific knowledge and more. While these technologies are being developed for in-space applications, many are cross-cutting and can have countless benefits back on Earth. 

Are there any exciting developments or projects in these fields that you’re particularly optimistic about?

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has developed a new thermal control coating affectionately known as Solar White. The concept for this coating began as a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) project and successfully progressed through all of NASA’s technology readiness level stages. It has now been licensed to multiple companies. The coating dramatically reduces the heat load from solar absorption, contributing significantly to NASA’s goal of long-term cryogenic storage in space. 

Who or what has been the most significant inspiration in your career, and how have they influenced your approach to your work?

Over the course of my 21-plus-year career, I’ve been very fortunate to find exceptional mentors at every stage. It would be impossible to pick the most inspirational person because each has inspired me in a unique and invaluable way. This handful of people has influenced every aspect of how I approach work, whether it's technical rigor, laser focus, systems thinking, deliberate communication, research techniques, humility, active listening, or stepping beyond my comfort zone. My genuine appreciation for these mentors has also made me a more willing and capable mentor as I have matured in my career. While I have formally served as a “mentor” to many interns and new hires over the years, I try to maintain a constant mentality of both mentorship for those who seek it and receptiveness to those offering mentorship to me. 

What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the fields of cryogenics and superconductivity or other male-dominated STEM fields?

Never give up. Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” It will be hard and there will be times when it’s tempting to give up; however, success is built on the back of perseverance.

Are there specific skills or qualities you believe are crucial for success in your line of work?

Research skills are critical in this field because, as applications expand, so does the body of work needed to support developments. Continuous, deliberate research into the current status of work released by credible publications can be tedious, but it provides a critical foundation to build from. Additionally, the ability to apply systems-level thinking is crucial for my work because when dealing with highly complex systems, seemingly small choices can have sweeping consequences. The last quality I’ll mention is something I believe to be important in all lines of work and at every level: responsiveness. The most challenging tasks cannot be done alone. We must all rely on each other, and the first step is to be responsive to collaboration.

Angela Krenn of NASA

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