You, A Rocket Scientist?

How Ariel Waldman hacked her way into NASA--in a good way. A burgeoning space industry may have a job for you, too.

About four years ago, Ariel Waldman was home watching a documentary called When We Left Earth, about the early days of NASA. It was a revelation: “When they were forming NASA, there were all these people working there who really had no idea what they were doing. They had no idea how to make a satellite; they didn’t know how orbits worked.” They reminded her of the hackers she had befriended in San Francisco. They reminded her, actually, of herself. “I thought, I don’t know anything! I want to work at NASA!”

Waldman, who had spent eight years working as a graphic designer/digital anthropologist at a Kansas City ad agency before moving to San Francisco and joining the short-lived social network Pownce, mentioned her NASA fantasy to a friend, who happened to know someone at the space agency. Waldman sent an email, and at warp speed, found herself in a newly created job as part of an initiative called NASA CoLab. “It was weird,” says Waldman. “The job description was like my entire career. They wanted someone who didn’t work at NASA, who was coming in from outside, who had experience in design and marketing and understood the San Francisco startup scene.”

Unfortunately, the CoLab initiative--whose mission was to engage Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in collaborative projects with NASA--soon lost its funding, and Waldman’s dream gig lasted just a few months. But it completely changed her sense of the possible. “Never in a million years did I think I would work at NASA,” she says. “I now knew I could actively contribute to space exploration.” After leaving NASA, Waldman created online directory of space-related citizen-science projects--to show how people like her, without formal science backgrounds, could actively contribute to space exploration and scientific discovery. Over the last few years, she’s fashioned a career as a sort of freelance space evangelist, speaking at conferences like South by Southwest, SETIcon, and DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Symposium, appearing on the Syfy Channel, making stellar predictions as a research affiliate at Institute For The Future, and helping launch Science Hack Days around the world.

Ariel Waldman

While Waldman, whose only academic degree is in graphic design, has had to carve out her own niche, she foresees a not-distant future when the space industry offers a wider variety of professional opportunities. “There’s a lot of disruption happening with the emergence of a private space industry with companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and tons more. Having NASA have a monopoly in this area is not a good thing--people should be just as excited to work at these new companies.” Citizen-science and open-science projects are also breaking down barriers on the supply side, says Waldman. “People are seeing that whatever they do in their career--from fashion design to blue-collar work--can contribute to how things happen in space exploration.”

One of the big challenges now, says Waldman, is getting the space industry to realize that it can--and should--draw upon the talents of people from outside to help them be even greater than they currently are. Just like NASA once did. “Presently, it’s understandable but frustrating that the vast majority of hiring at SpaceX is engineers. That’s what they should be focusing on now, but by the same token, they have a really bad website and could be doing much better in terms of communication and openness and engaging people. I hope the space industry gets smarter about communication and engagement, so we’re not just creating new versions of NASA.” Rather than bringing in the best in the world to bolster its online presence, says Waldman, NASA too often takes the route of finding someone in-house to do a merely adequate job.

Waldman has more faith that a company like Virgin Galactic will lead the way in opening up the space industry. “They understand the importance of brand in a way that other space companies really don’t get.” Apart from design, web, and marketing talent, says Waldman, the space industry will increasingly need data scientists, fashion people to work on space suits, mining people to mine asteroids, and more. So if you’re getting tired of your earthbound gig, don’t despair. Things are looking up--and maybe you should be, too.

[Ariel Waldman Image: Flickr user; Rocket Image: Matt Biddulph]

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