Meet the 28-Year-Old Female Engineer Making Space Exploration Cool Again

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Earlier this month, an internet firestorm was set off after Isis Wenger, a 22-year-old San Francisco-based engineer, was criticized online for being too pretty, and thus an unrealistic choice, to portray an engineer in an ad campaign for tech startup OneLogin. The only problem: Wenger is actually an engineer at the company.

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In response to the criticisms, she began the #ilooklikenaengineer campaign on Twitter to encourage other female engineers to be seen and heard.

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Among the women who spoke out was 28-year-old Emily Calandrelli. She’s an aerospace engineer and the host and producer of “Xploration Outer Space,” a Fox TV show that explores the mysteries of space.

While many viewers may believe space has always been her passion, Calandrelli told NextShark otherwise: “I’m not one of those people that wanted to be an astronaut since I was 2 years old and always obsessed with space and rockets. That just wasn’t me — I didn’t find that when I was a child. I was always interested in math and science — I think a lot of kids naturally are — and I found myself to be pretty good at math. It’s always fun to do things that you’re good at, and I sort of landed in this field by chance, and I’m glad that I did.”

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At West Virginia University, Calendrelli says she found herself as one of only two women in one of her bigger science classes. She chose to major in engineering and admits that she got into it because she heard she could make a sizable income upon graduation. However, she didn’t know what kind of engineer she wanted be.

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 “I remember trying to decide which type of engineering I wanted to do, and when I was a freshman in college, we were walking through the halls, and I remember looking on the wall and seeing a poster of a student floating in zero gravity. It turned out that it was a student program for aerospace engineers to perform research on NASA’s vomit comet. If you were in aerospace engineering or wanted to do aerospace-type work, you could actually fly on this aircraft yourself and perform this research yourself — that really is the sole reason that I decided to go into aerospace engineering. I stayed there because NASA and so many others have opportunities for students to travel, do research and get paid to do this type of research. There’s a lot of opportunity for people to do engineering and specifically aerospace engineering.“

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Calandrelli joined the program and discovered her passion was in space science. After graduating WVU, she went on to receive her master’s in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT. She then worked as a research assistant at NASA research centers and did internships at the U.S. House of Representatives and other space-related companies.

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As someone who aspires to go to space one day, Calandrelli told NextShark about her experience on NASA’s “vomit comet,” an aircraft that provides near-weightlessness for astronauts-in-training:

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“Astronauts actually train on the vomit comet for that weightlessness for once they get up in space. My second time on the vomit comet, I actually flew with astronaut Cady Coleman, who was an MIT alum and flew with our MIT team. She was talking about how the two best parts of going up to space were really just you and the feeling of weightlessness. That flight allows you to experience one of the two things that makes being an astronaut awesome. It’s a great opportunity for people like myself to be able to do that because you get a little insight into what it would be like to be an astronaut.

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“The way it goes down is you feel weightless for about 25 seconds, and then you feel really heavy for about 25 seconds, and that’s how it goes on for about two hours. You get your fill of weightlessness; you can really fly around the cabin during that time. Twenty-five seconds doesn’t seem like that long a time, but when you’re floating it feels like you’re flying.”

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Individuals unaccustomed to the feeling of weightlessness, however, may feel nauseous at first. Calandrelli told NextShark:

“They give you these flight suits to wear. In one of the breast pockets they have a little bag, because obviously, if you get sick under weightless conditions where does that throw-up go? It goes everywhere; it doesn’t fall to the ground. It can be quite a gross problem for everyone on the plane. They definitely take good measures so that can be concealed quickly. After you do that, you tie up your bag and hand it to one of the people who work on the plane, sit down for a little bit — at least I did for a few parabolas, then I was like, ‘OK I feel good again.’ Then I kept going and doing flips and feeling weightless.

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They give you a shot that is really intense of dramamine; it hits you pretty quickly. You feel a bit woozy before getting on the plane. It makes it so that you feel dizzy before getting on the plane, but it makes your inner ear fluid more stable when you get on the plane so you don’t feel that off balance when you’re under weightless conditions.”

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While she aspires to go to space, Calandrelli said that she doesn’t have any plans to pursue being an astronaut:

“It does take a lot of time. There are pretty detailed requirements on the prerequisites of what you need to have to apply to be an astronaut. For one, I don’t have enough work experience to apply to be an astronaut. If you have a master’s, I think you need four years of experience in a technical position before you can apply. Or else you need a PhD in a technical field.”

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“If I were to apply to be a NASA astronaut, I would have to go and work as an engineer, researcher or scientist for four years. I couldn’t be a TV host of an outer space show.”

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“The cool thing about all these new startups that are happening in the space industry is, they are changing what it could mean to be considered an astronaut. We have people like Virgin Galactic, who are selling tickets to outer space. People like Katy Perry, Angelina Jolie, Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber have all bought tickets into outer space. Within the next 10 years it’s very likely that they will go to space and they will be considered astronauts — the idea of what it takes to be an astronaut is changing. It’s going to become cheaper and cheaper for people to go into space. I would love to be able to afford a ticket into space. I’m not sure NASA will be my route, but it’s still an exciting option that could happen in the future.”

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As a female host of a space show on Fox, some see Calandrelli as the young female version of Bill Nye or Neil Degrasse Tyson. Calandrelli said of her position:

“I think when you’re younger watching TV, there’s just something about watching someone that looks a little bit like you talking about science, math and space exploration that makes it a little more relatable. It makes it more like, ‘Oh, maybe that’s something that I could do.’ It makes that thought come a little easier. Fifty-five percent of our viewers are female. That’s huge because my show is all about a male-dominated field, so we have 55% females watching a show about a male-dominated field. I think that speaks volumes to how we’re attracting more and more women to become interested in space.”

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On whether she thinks aliens exist, Calandrelli told NextShark: “I think that it’s statistically improbable that aliens do not exist. I think there is a ton of microbial life in the universe. I think there is also some other instances of intelligent life. We don’t know what it looks like; we know that it will not look like humans because our evolutionary process was over a long period of time with a lot of things in between. We know that they can’t look like humans, but I do believe that they’re out there.”

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Calandrelli has always lived by three mottos: get uncomfortable, get outraged, and get adventurous. On the advice she would give to those younger than her, she told NextShark:

“I think that anything that you feel excited to have accomplished in life has always started with a little bit of discomfort. When you’re thinking about your career or you’re nervous to take that new job or whatever it is, my advice to them was to get out of your comfort zone, because it’s natural to feel uncomfortable. It’s really the only way you can grow as a person.

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“I had a history teacher that said, ‘If you’re not outraged, then you’re not paying attention.’ To me, I didn’t quite understand that. I had a pretty easy life, a family that loved me, friends that were great, went to a good school, lived in a safe area. Later in life you learn how the world is imperfect and that there are many ways that we can work to change it, and not all of them are good.”

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“There are a lot of excuses to not travel: that it’s expensive, you have to work, or you need to be with your significant other right now — all of the excuses that we tell ourselves to not take an adventure. For me, adventure has really been wonderful. It allows you to have stories. It’s an investment in yourself; it’s an investment in stories you can tell to meet other people. You learn about different cultures of the world, different tragedies of the world, all of these things that I think are important to have when you’re young. Do not wait until you’re older — you’re only going to have more obligations and responsibilities as you get older.”

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