SPCE Stock – 32-year-old researcher first ‘social media influencer’ set to go to space
Gerardi — who has 5 lakh followers on TikTok and over a lakh on Instagram — is set to go into space on a Virgin Galactic spaceflight to conduct experiments, including researching how launch, weightlessness, re-entry and landing affects spaceflight participants.
Gerardi, a bioastronautics researcher with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), a citizen-science institute in the US, told TOI she was beyond excited to start her astronaut training. “In some ways, I represent a new generation of astronauts as a researcher going to space with payload experiments,” said Gerardi, who is based in Florida.
However, a few years ago, Gerardi couldn’t have been farther from her dream. While her personal life was a testament to her love for the cosmos— she tied the knot in a space-themed wedding and named her daughter Delta V, a value used in spacecraft flight dynamics— she had a degree in film studies.
Gerardi’s professional life took an unexpected turn when she started working in the commercial space industry, handling communications, operations and business development roles through the years. “Over time, I gravitated more towards conducting the science myself, rather than just communicating it,” said Gerardi, who later joined IIAS through their Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) research program, an astronautics research and education program to study the upper atmosphere and its role in our changing climate. She also undertook professional courses from the institute.
Gerardi has also been involved in analog space research — analog missions are in locations that simulate extreme space environments — including at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), a Mars surface simulation facility, in 2014 where she evaluated a prototype commercial spacesuit.
But entering the industry as a non-engineer had its share of struggles. “I think early on I felt a disproportionate sense of pressure, feeling as if I made a mistake, it wasn’t just a reflection on me, it felt somehow like a reflection on all non-engineers in STEM ( science, technology, engineering and mathematics). I suffered a bit of imposter syndrome, but I’ve grown quite secure now, and I firmly believe that folks from all disciplines have a role to play in the space industry,” said Gerardi. Her book ‘Not Necessarily Rocket Science’ talks about how the next giant leap will “require the talents of artists, engineers and everyone in between”.
On being a social media influencer, Kellie said her favourite part is receiving messages from strangers who say her story resonated with them. “I love hearing how someone has put their name in the hat for a dream job or started a science communication platform, or taken the first step towards engineering the future of their dreams. That’s the influence I aspire to have.”
Among the experiments Gerardi will conduct on her spaceflight is testing a smart undershirt fitted with sensors designed to study effects of spaceflight on humans. “The Astroskin Bio-Monitor wearable sensors system developed by a Canadian company Carre Technologies with the support of the Canadian Space Agency is already in use on the International Space Station, where it helps monitor the effects of microgravity on International Space Station (ISS) astronauts. My spaceflight will be the first time we’ll be able to collect data during launch, re-entry and landing,” she said.
Another experiment is designed to see how liquid behaves in a confined environment in microgravity. According to Virgin Galactic, during the spaceflight, “Kellie will unbuckle from her seat and undertake the actions necessary to complete each experiment during several minutes of weightlessness”. It added, “We are very proud to fly Kellie so she can fulfill a lifelong dream, conduct important research, and inspire the next generation of researchers and astronauts.”
The IIAS and Virgin Galactic teams will collaborate with academic and government partners to plan Gerardi’s flight activities to maximise the science and technology advancements gained from the research experiments. The company hasn’t revealed the date of the spaceflight.
Gerardi said the most rewarding bit for her has been sharing this experience with her three-year-old daughter. “I get emotional when I think about what it means for her to see her mother become an astronaut. Less than a hundred women in history (and only a handful of moms) have ever flown to space, and I really believe representation matters. In Delta’s mind, flying to space is just another thing moms do.”