- Kellie Gerardi will soon be one of the youngest mothers ever to go to space.
- Gerardi is a Palantir employee who moonlights as an astronaut and has a background in space communication.
- She has half a million followers on TikTok and Instagram, where she posts about STEM and motherhood.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Kellie Gerardi isn’t the first tech industry worker with a side hustle. When she’s not working her day job as a mission operations specialist at sometimes-controversial data analysis firm Palantir, she’s also a popular TikTok star, where her videos about outer space, astrophysics, and motherhood have garnered nearly 460,000 followers.
As soon as next year, however, Gerardi will take on a new moonlighting gig that few can match: The 32-year-old is slated to embark on her first spaceflight as a payload specialist with Virgin Galactic, making her one of the youngest mothers to ever leave the atmosphere, and the first female payload specialist contracted to fly on a commercial spacecraft.
“Less than a thousand humans have ever been to space – fewer than 100 women, only a handful of moms, and my three-year-old is going to watch her mommy become one of them,” Gerardi told Insider. “That’s a really powerful framework and one that I think as she grows up, she believes that going to space is just another thing mommies do.”
Set to fly on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity suborbital spacecraft, Gerardi’s flight is expected to last 60 to 75 minutes, and will take off and land at the company’s space hub in New Mexico. Gerardi will conduct a fluid dynamics experiment in microgravity and test wearable sensors that monitor the biological impact of space flight on civilians.
The experiments are being conducted by and for the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), a research and education organization that encourages private citizens to explore space, and where Gerardi is also a researcher. IIAS and Virgin Galactic will work with academic and government partners to plan the flight and “maximize the science and technology advancements gained from the research experiments,” Virgin Galactic said in a press release. IIAS is also funding Gerardi’s flight and providing her with training ahead of takeoff.
Notably, Gerardi isn’t herself an engineer, but rather a science communicator and citizen scientist: As Virgin Galactic and others like Blue Origin and SpaceX race to make space tourism and exploration more widely available within the next few years, Gerardi says future space travelers “won’t all be engineers.”
When she returns from her space flight, Gerardi hopes to help make sure the next generation of space explorers is a more diverse one, from a wide range of backgrounds and demographics.
“I’m just one of many, many researchers who are going to fly in the next decade with their payloads and with their experiments,” she said. “I want to help make sure that that pipeline isn’t a one-off for me.”
From working coat check at an exclusive New York club to outer space
Gerardi told Insider she grew up with a strong interest in space, but also an “outdated framework” around who was allowed to be an astronaut. The space industry, like other STEM fields, has wide racial and gender gaps and is overrepresented by white men. Women make up only 24% of aerospace industry professionals, according to an Aviation Week report, and represent just one third of NASA’s workforce.
“It wasn’t an industry I saw myself necessarily as having a future in until I was a little bit older and discovered the commercial space flight industry,” Gerardi said.
That discovery came after studying film at Columbia University and New York University, and Gerardi began working the coat check at The Explorers Club in New York City – a professional society dedicated to science and exploration that counts outgoing Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and director James Cameron among its members. Bezos, notably, will be making his own spaceflight soon.
It was there that she met Richard Garriott, the club’s current president and the sixth private citizen to go to space. Garriott, a video game entrepreneur, paid $35 million to fly to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket in 2008.
“It blew my mind to think that someone could have circumvented the NASA astronaut selection processes but still achieved a life dream. And so that was my sort of ‘aha’ moment of ‘Wow, this industry is enabling the next generation of fliers,” she said.
Gerardi’s first role in the space industry was at the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, where she was a media specialist, and later worked with Masten Space Systems, an aerospace manufacturing startup. But she first gained national attention in 2014 as a candidate to establish a human colony on Mars as part of the private Mars One mission, which was aborted after coming under harsh criticism from the scientific community.
“More than a decade ago, I thought perhaps I would have a career one day in science communication, and telling those stories,” Gerardi told Insider. “And then I realized that I did have the aptitude to get involved myself and be an active contributor. So that part of my career really took flight.”
How a Palantir employee became an astronaut
Gerardi joined Palantir’s mission operations team in 2015. The company describes the team as a “logistical special forces unit” that performs customer service work as varied as setting up a complex hardware deployment to acting as travel agents.
“We’re sort of the 24/7 global operation team that deploys against the highest priorities in the company. So wherever mission operations are needed, we deploy, we go to where the work is,” Gerardi said.
As a technical project manager for Palantir’s philanthropic efforts, Gerardi told Insider she has helped organizations use its flagship Gotham data analysis software, which is typically used by law enforcement and other government agencies. Gotham has been the subject of controversy in those settings, however, such as when used by ICE to screen immigrants at the border.
While “heavily pregnant” in 2017, Gerardi said she was sent to Houston, Texas to help Team Rubicon, a nonprofit disaster response group made up of military veterans, power lifeboat rescues and provide relief to those affected by Hurricane Harvey.
But her chance to go into space came from her background in science communication, which turned into space research and more.
Gerardi first became involved with IIAS through the Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) program, a nonprofit initiative that studies Earth’s upper atmosphere and trains private citizens for spaceflight and research. Gerardi is also an ambassador for the PoSSUM 13 program, which aims to “increase opportunity and representation for students – especially young women – in space science and exploration,” she said.
Her association with the group is what led her to be tapped for this particular experiment, though she says she will likely only be the first of many from IIAS.
“We have a ton of talented researchers and plenty of payloads we’d love to fly, so I’m confident this is just the first of many future IIAS human-tended research flight announcements to come,” Gerardi said.
And though she considers Palantir her priority, Gerardi said she’s “excited to put this out of office message out when I do fly to space.”
Using TikTok to help send the next generation into space
Gerardi says one of her goals is to demonstrate that there’s a path into the space industry, even for people like herself who don’t come from traditional STEM backgrounds.
“Humanity’s next giant leap will require the talents of artists, engineers, and everyone in between,” she said. “And so I really did want to share that message to anyone who was thinking about, ‘Wow, what a fascinating industry, how can I get involved in helping these problems?’ And perhaps thought there wasn’t a role for them when there very much is.”
Seeing more people like her in aerospace could have also helped alleviate some of the early challenges Gerardi faced, where she says she felt a “disproportionate sense of pressure.”
“If I messed up at the first rocket company that I was working at, where I was the only non-engineer at the company, it’s like, ‘Is that a reflection, not just on my performance, but on all non-engineers in STEM or all women in STEM?” she said.
One way Gerardi is expanding that funnel is through a whole-hearted embrace of TikTok and Instagram, where she has a combined reach of over half a million followers and posts about space, motherhood, and encourages women and young people to join STEM fields. Had those platforms existed when she was growing up, Gerardi says she may have joined the space industry sooner.
“The people that I’m trying to reach and help nurture their dreams live on these platforms,” she said. “There has never been a more powerful sort of access point for science communication.”