New Pioneers

Kellie Gerardi might be the first social media star in space

The intergalactic influencer and commercial space professional is ready to go into orbit.

One of Kellie Gerardi’s most popular posts on TikToks (where she has almost 120,000 followers) starts with her looking concerned.

While one hand rests on the side of her face and she furrows her eyebrows, the text above her reads: “Freaking out that my 2yo daughter said ‘daddies wear suits to work’ and asking “what about Mom?” Gerardi, 31, shakes her head and mouths emphatically, “What do you MEAN?”

The reveal comes seconds later with a music cue — the background changes to an image of Gerardi in an orange space suit while she dances, and the text reads, “But then she says ‘and Mommies wear spacesuits.’”

Gerardi’s sense of humor and willingness to think outside the box have taken her far in both her career in commercial space and as a science communicator on social media. She currently leads Special Projects for the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

“Having worked in the commercial spaceflight industry and seen firsthand the promise of suborbital spaceflight to open up access to space for civilians like myself, I'm excited to know my own personal dream of spaceflight no longer has to be an ‘if’ — it's a ‘when,’” Gerardi tells Inverse.

Inverse spoke to Gerardi about being part of the commercial space industry, making space puns, and having a laugh while dealing with social media trolls.

Read more in the New Pioneers series:

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What was your first exposure to space?

I had front row seats to spaceflight, right from the comfort of my childhood home in Jupiter, Florida. My bedroom window faced northeast, perfectly framing the stretch of sky over Cape Canaveral, and over the years I must have watched dozens of astronauts make the journey to space.

Growing up against the backdrop of space shuttle launches definitely gave me appreciation for the wonder of spaceflight, but it was a long time before I saw it as an industry I could ever hope to be involved in. From an early age, I had sort of filed space travel away as an unrealistic goal; it seemed like something only a small handful of extraordinary humans were born to do and contribute to. It took me a long time before I realized I could get involved in that magic.

What did you think an astronaut or someone in the space industry did when you were a kid? How is that different from what you do now?

Much to my chagrin, I was a late-blooming space nerd. I was always fascinated by the idea of humans living and working in space, but it just didn't occur to me that I might be able to take part. Even now, with a decade of experience in aerospace and hours logged flying in microgravity and testing spacesuits as part of my bioastronautics research, I still have to have a quick pinch-me pep talk with the part of myself who always assumed these things were only reserved for those few special people who had proven their worthiness and aptitude across an entire lifetime of commitment. Now, having worked in the commercial spaceflight industry and seen firsthand the promise of suborbital spaceflight to open up access to space for civilians like myself, I'm excited to know my own personal dream of spaceflight no longer has to be an “if” — it's a “when!”

“In the course of my career, I’ve trained for spaceflight, conducted research in microgravity, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with rockets, spacecraft, lunar landers, satellites, spaceports, spacesuits, and so much more.”Kellie Gerardi

When did you know that space was for you?

I think Stephen King (my all-time favorite storyteller) described it best. He wrote, “You hear a click, not in your head but in your soul, when you find the place where you belong.” I felt that when I showed up to work on my first day in the commercial space industry. A decade later, I still feel the same thrill and surge of adrenaline when I consider the fact I happen to be alive in this incredible window of history — the first time in more than 4.5 billion years where we have the potential to settle other worlds.

When did you know that science communication was for you?

This was one area where my non-engineering background was an asset. Once I discovered my passion for space exploration, sharing that passion with the public came easily to me; I naturally gravitated away from nitty-gritty technical concepts in favor of the big picture takeaways that had gripped me in the first place, and I think a strength of mine is distilling those down to the inspirational themes that resonate most strongly with the general public. My first space industry SciComm job also gave me a title that fulfilled my wildest Star Trek dreams: media specialist of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. I was hooked. Since then, I've been so lucky to build a platform where I can speak directly to hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.

How have you changed your field?

I'm most proud, and grateful, to have had an opportunity to help democratize access to space and contribute to the expansion of Earth's economic sphere. My own career is a testament to that democratized access. As a non-engineer, I went from dreaming about the promise of space exploration to contributing to it, and eventually to training for it myself as part of Project PoSSUM, a suborbital research group. I’ve loved sharing my own experiences and reflections on social media, and nothing is more rewarding than hearing that something I've said or shared has sparked someone else's passion for exploration and discovery.

You have over 100,000 followers on both Instagram and TikTok. What’s your favorite TikTok you’ve made so far?

I'm very new to TikTok (another learning curve!), but I've been blown away by the warm welcome and incredible reception from the community. I've really enjoyed it. I also love the ability to be more creative and share some slightly sharper humor.

My favorite TikTok is probably the one where I addressed the fact that I got rude comments after sharing that I updated Wikipedia articles to replace outdated phrases like “manned spaceflight” with “crewed” or “human spaceflight.” In the TikTok, I instructed viewers to hit the “Like” button if they agree with me and support inclusive language, or to comment if they don't think it matters. The joke was that I turned commenting off for that video, so it looks at first glance like 12,000 people agree and zero disagree. I got plenty of frustrated direct messages after that one, but it still amuses me.

What’s a rookie mistake that you’ve made?

I'll share my most embarrassing professional moment. I didn't come from an engineering background, so my learning curve was steep and I had some enormous, embarrassing knowledge gaps. On my first or second day working at a spaceport, I saw a memo referencing a need for LOX. My mind went to smoked salmon, and I remember thinking that it was kind of an entitled thing to expect at work. I can't describe to you the mortification of realizing that the LOX here wasn't the bagel type. It was liquid oxygen, the rocket propellant.

It turned into a positive, though. It motivated me to understand how, exactly, the flow of cooled isopropyl alcohol and liquid oxygen powered our rocket engines. My boss had me in a hazardous materials handling course at dawn the next day. Instead of hearing or reading about how propellants worked (or worse, being discouraged from veering too far from my lane), I was given the opportunity to get certified to help load them into the rocket myself and watch the engine ignition sequence take place on the pad. That kind of hands-on learning was invaluable, and I'll never look at smoked salmon the same way again.

“I'm most proud, and grateful, to have had an opportunity to help democratize access to space.”

What’s your superpower?

My superpower is my intense mission focus and the fact that I'm motivated by outcomes, not credit. Throughout my career I've found that the most successful people don't chase their own success; they chase good outcomes. Now, when I assemble teams of my own, I want to be surrounded by people who are humble and gritty, hungry for results, and willing to do whatever it takes to earn them. And 99% of the time, “doing whatever it takes” means you're doing the less glamorous work. While I've certainly relished moments in the spotlight, I've developed the utmost appreciation for the purely operational work that happens behind the scenes, the kind that keeps the lights on. That's the zone I'm best equipped to operate in.

Where’s one place you’d like to go that no one’s gone before?

That's easy. Mars! I got a small taste of the Red Planet in 2014, as a crew member at the Mars Desert Research Station, a prototype laboratory used by a variety of scientists and national space agencies to conduct analog Mars research. I'm so excited to be alive at a time where space settlement is an achievable goal.

What’s one thing you’d tell your 15-year-old self?

There are so many things. At that age, you have this Ptolemaic view of the world, like everything revolves around you. I wasted time agonizing about social standing and all these completely inconsequential things, but I guess that's a right of passage, so I probably wouldn't waste my time-traveling message on the topic. Instead, I'd give a message of hope. You're going to find what you love and you need to grab the opportunities by the reigns and not waste energy worrying about whether you're good enough. Plenty of people want to assign ceilings on your growth in life, so you definitely shouldn't put them on yourself.

What’s a prediction you have for 2030?

Hopefully by then I'll have the opportunity to share my own personal experience in space, having flown alongside my own research payload onboard a suborbital commercial vehicle. I'm most excited about the continued democratization of access to space and all the benefits we'll reap as a society when researchers, scientists, artists, poets, and everyone in between can fly.

What do you do on a day off?

When I'm not working, you can find me playing with my daughter, Delta Victoria. Her name is a deeply geeky play on "Delta-v" or ∆v. She's only 2, but she’s already had a lot of overlap with space. She was only a newborn in February 2018, but she came with me to the first-ever launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket. When the sound barrier broke over her head, it dawned on me that she has been born exactly at the beginning of a new era in space exploration, where so many people are working together toward a shared dream of expanding humanity's footprint in the universe — a dream that Delta's generation will most certainly see realized.

If your biography were written today, what would the title be and who would you want to write it?

Funny you should ask! I can answer this question with certainty. The title would be Not Necessarily Rocket Science: A Beginner’s Guide to Life in the Space Age, and the author would be me, sharing my perspective in my own words! And it just might be available on Nov. 17!

What motivates you?

It's difficult to summarize in words. I like to think about how the Apollo program took us further than our species had ever been, some quarter of a million miles away from our home planet, but that's only the beginning of our journey. The Milky Way galaxy, which we have yet to probe the boundaries of, exists among hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. We have so far to go. To me, looking at the night sky gives me the feeling answers to some of humanity’s oldest and most existential questions linger just beyond those horizon lines. And I really believe that the impulse to reach for the stars isn't a whim; it's a survival instinct. We find ourselves on the cusp of the Golden Age of Spaceflight, and I feel so lucky that we happen to be alive in this small, unprecedented window in human history where interplanetary travel is finally possible. Put simply, I'm motivated to make the most of life in the Space Age!

What’s next for you?

I have a book coming out in November, and I'm so excited to share what it means to live in this special chapter of human history. In the introduction, I draw comparisons to the Renaissance, when art was only one manifestation of a new way of thinking. Cultural innovation was equally apparent across the vastly different disciplines of medicine, technology, religion, politics, philosophy, science, and even warfare. Similarly, engineering feats represent only one small slice of the Space Age. Instead, this era will be remembered as a broader cultural movement that saw 21st century humans contemplating our next giant leap as a species, marking the beginning of our transition from the Earth to the stars. And that next giant leap will require the contributions of artists, engineers, and everyone in between. It's not necessarily rocket science.

Do you have any favorite jokes or puns about space?

I am a repeat offender with space puns; it's terrible and wonderful. My favorite was a fake Yelp review I saw for the International Space Station: “2 stars, lacks atmosphere.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

In the course of my career, I’ve trained for spaceflight, conducted research in microgravity, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with rockets, spacecraft, lunar landers, satellites, spaceports, spacesuits, and so much more. Even better, I’ve had the opportunity to build a massive science communication platform to share my experiences and reflections with the world. I often reflect that my entire career was built in an industry that, until just a few decades ago, existed only in science fiction like Star Trek. The writers in those shows were visionaries in so many ways. The tech was cool, but they really imagined this future that probed the boundaries of human progress. That progress, the hope not only for survival but for prosperity, is why we continue to explore.