Aspiring astronaut and Space Age ambassador – Physics World

Physics
Taken from the December 2020 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

When the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon in 1969 the whole world stopped, just for a moment, and looked up. We stepped out into the universe and firmly entered the Space Age, which had begun with Sputnik just 12 years earlier. For many Physics World readers, the scientific and engineering exploits of those early achievements are a source of intrigue and no little excitement. From those crackled first words on the Moon, to images of the boot print in the lunar surface, or the new perspective of our world – the fragile blue marble suspended in darkness – humanity’s most impressive engineering effort has had a huge impact on our collective consciousness.

Commercial spaceflight industry professional and science communicator Kellie Gerardi was one of the many who wanted to be part of the nascent Space Age. But with a degree in film studies rather than aerospace engineering, her non-traditional path in the space industry is a key theme of her new book Not Necessarily Rocket Science: a Beginner’s Guide to Life in the Space Age. With more than 122,000 followers on Instagram, Gerardi is something of a social-media star, and her book serves as part mission statement, part witness statement and part manifesto. They say that those converted to a cause are often the most evangelical and Not Necessarily Rocket Science brims with Gerardi’s passion – not just for the science and engineering of space exploration, but also for its democratization.

The reader is greeted in the opening chapter by a whistle-stop tour of the history of space flight. Gerardi’s experience as a copywriter and communicator imbues the text with an urgency and personality that bubbles throughout the book. It is subtitled “a beginner’s guide” but even the most seasoned space reader will find nuggets in this opening chapter, which is set up to deliver the reader to where the industry is now. But it is Gerardi’s experience and insight into the space exploration of today, and tomorrow, which really set this book apart.

Gerardi conducts bioastronautics research and spacesuit evaluation in microgravity with the “Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere” Project PoSSUM – the first crewed suborbital research programme. Having previously worked in business development, she now also serves in an advisory role to Masten Space Systems, an aerospace-manufacturing start-up company in Mojave, California. Indeed, NASA is set to pay Masten $75.9m for the company to build and launch a lander called XL-1. It will take NASA and other customer payloads to the south pole of the Moon, in a mission scheduled for late 2022.

Gerardi recounts her experiences as part of the 149th crew rotation of the Mars Desert Research Station, a simulated Mars analogue habitat owned and operated by the Mars Society. She also talks about her numerous parabolic flights as a Suited Test Subject, flying fully pressurized in a spacesuit while carrying out microgravity experiments on fluid configuration, solid body rotation and biometrics. Gerardi’s sense of humour and passion are evident throughout, along with an interest in science fiction. Her excitement is palpable as she recounts the time when Lucasfilm turned up at Masten Space Systems to record its rocket engine sounds to use in Star Wars: Episode VII – the Force Awakens.

Gerardi’s broad and deep knowledge of the commercial space industry makes Not Necessarily Rocket Science a fascinating read, even for those for whom the words “thousands of followers on TikTok” are either meaningless or not really a selling point. Social media is often maligned, and often justifiably so, for its lack of depth or for celebrating the less salubrious aspects of humanity. Gerardi’s first foray into social-media success came as a teenager in the early days of YouTube. She filmed her father excitedly opening his Christmas present (an Xbox) and uploaded it to the then new but burgeoning video-sharing site. A family Christmas lunch later and the video had hundreds of thousands of views. These days, YouTube is awash with people unboxing tech items and make-up packages. That Gerardi turned her gaze (and those of her viewers) to science, engineering and space exploration is surely something to celebrate.

The mainstream media became aware of Gerardi when she was selected for the (now cancelled) Mars One project. The idea was to raise money from investors to send a mission to Mars with human occupants to establish a permanent base for humanity. The project was much maligned in the media and Gerardi appeared on a host of television and radio programmes to defend it. The chapters covering this experience in her book offer a fascinating insight into the process. Gerardi has a strained, if not broken, relationship with Mars One and regrets the media spotlight being on the foolishness of the idea rather than the exciting prospect of the possibilities of space flight. Her book turns the attention squarely in the right direction.

Space is no longer the preserve of all-male, all-white flight test pilots or people with PhDs in orbital mechanics

If we truly are in the Space Age then the next steps for space exploration include space tourism with Virgin Galactic and others. With that comes the need for baristas, chefs, guides and more. Space is no longer the preserve of all-male, all-white flight test pilots or people with PhDs in orbital mechanics. Space exploration will be covered by social-media stars and, in the right hands, could reach perhaps even more of humanity than those pictures of the Apollo missions did over 50 years ago. It would be something of a tragedy if the science and engineering of those missions were lost to the vacuities of social media and it is something of a relief that there are social-media stars with a depth of passion and understanding like that of Kellie Gerardi.

  • 2020 Mango Publishing £18.95hb 256pp

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