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Amy Kaminski: ‘Living the Dream’ at NASA

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Amy Kaminski is trying to get you interested in space — and get NASA interested in you.

Kaminski grew up watching stars over her Pennsylvania home. Now she’s the program executive at NASA’s Prizes and Challenges office, which tries to enlist the public in assisting with space research. Public engagement is “a very important part” of NASA’s mission, “one we need to recognize and more fully embrace,” she said.

It’s the result of an evolutionary change in the U.S. space program, which began with a cultivated public image of highly disciplined professionals — an era immortalized in “The Right Stuff.” Kaminski said NASA started broadening its outreach to the public when the space shuttle era began in the 1980s, but some within the agency were skeptical about the quality of the data that ordinary citizens could help them collect. However, in a few initial projects, “The results were pretty amazing.”

“I think there’s been an incremental kind of demonstration of testing the waters of these techniques to show they are in fact legitimate ways of obtaining science for the agency,” she said.

In recent years, the space agency has called on volunteers to help sort through millions of images taken from instruments in Earth’s orbit, peering down at our planet or into deep space.

For instance, thousands of volunteers help review images from the WISE telescope, which was repurposed in 2013 to look for near-Earth objects like comets and asteroids. Thousands more are helping sort through images collected by the Kepler space telescope in search of evidence of exoplanets circling distant stars, or looking for telltale disks of stellar debris that might indicate a developing solar system. Others help record falling meteors or the Aurora Borealis — the “northern lights” produced when charged particles from the sun hit the Earth’s magnetic field. 

And NASA recently announced $7.5 million in funding for six Earth science projects, from recording snowfall in the Pacific Northwest to using cheap, portable instruments to measure fine particle pollution.

Kaminski wanted to work for NASA since she was a girl in the Pittsburgh suburbs, said her mother, Cheryl Snyder. Snyder said her daughter’s old bedroom “has not changed since the day she left — you walk around and it’s an homage to NASA and the space industry.”

“She’s a testimony to when you decide that this is what you want to do, and you do it,” Snyder said. “She’s made it a life and a career. She’s living the dream.” 

Kaminski credits her grandfather for fueling her enthusiasm. Melvin Bernzweig took her out to his backyard to watch the Perseid meteor showers from his backyard one August when she was eight, and “from there I was hooked,” she said.

“I started to read everything I could on astronomy and space, and then I decided I wanted to be an astronaut,” she said.

In addition, one of her middle school teachers, Pat Palazzollo, taught a special class in space exploration after having been a Pennsylvania state finalist in the NASA contest to send a teacher into orbit aboard a space shuttle in the 1980s. The eventual winner, Christa McAuliffe, died with her crewmates in the 1986 Challenger disaster.

“I already had this interest and passion, but I give her a lot of credit for keeping it going through those challenging middle-school years, where a lot of kids — and especially girls — often drop off in terms of their interest in science and technology,” Kaminski said. “She was a real inspiration.”

But after she started her undergraduate classes at Cornell University, her interest shifted toward what she called “the societal implications of exploring space, and of science and technology generally.” That led to a master’s degree in science policy at George Washington University and jobs at the FAA and the White House budget office, where she worked on NASA’s budget. In 2011, she got a doctorate degree and joined NASA full-time.

“I have a real commitment to wanting to understand and make sure that in space exploration and in science and technology generally, that we recognize who our customer is and who we’re serving,” she said.

“I feel very strongly that it’s important to establish what the relevance is to the public we serve, so that’s ultimately why I did go back to school to kind of deepen my understanding and appreciation of that question and explore how we’ve done and might be able to do that.”

In 2015, then-White House Science Adviser John Holdren told all federal science agencies to designate one person to coordinate citizen-science efforts and work with other agencies to catalog and promote them. Kaminski is NASA’s point woman on that issue, and she regularly meets with her counterparts across the government to talk about upcoming projects, where to find funding, and how to get around any roadblocks.

She urges her colleagues to try enlisting public help wherever it may fit into their work, offering simple, clear tasks to volunteers.

“By trying it, you see that there are benefits not just to the science directly,” she said. “There’s a huge value in terms of what you’re doing in breeding not just science literacy among the public, or an appreciation among the public, but connections … There’s such value in that, and the inspiration they take away, and the sense of empowerment people get from it, is really extraordinary.”

Author

Matt Smith