How Astronauts Inspire Next-Generation Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Students

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on September 26, 2017
Traver Kennedy
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Joi Scientific’s Traver Kennedy Shares his Experience Participating on the Judging Panel for the 2017 Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence.

I will never forget that summer evening of July 20, 1969. My father and I sat mesmerized in front of our 12-inch black and white television set watching the Apollo 11 lunar landing when Neil Armstrong first proclaimed, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was a great moment in American history. It was also a great moment in my life where my father and I had seriously bonded and were deeply inspired. As an engineer, my father believed then, as I do now, that technology holds the key for humanity.

On September 16, I had the honor to be part of the judging panel who awarded this year’s Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence to a promising young Astronaut Scholar alumni. My participation was a small way for me to pay tribute to a remarkable man who has inspired millions of people across multiple generations. Here are some of my observations on this year’s stellar event and inaugural award recipient:

Neil Armstrong: still making an impact on young generations of STEM students. 

What is the Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence?

The prestigious award is the product of a partnership between the family of Neil Armstrong, Neil’s friend Jim Hays, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF) originally created by the Mercury 7 astronauts, and The Purdue Research Foundation. The award was conceived to “Recognize a past Astronaut Scholar whose character and professional accomplishments reflect the excellence of their work, its contributions to society, and the high standards and principles embodied by Neil and all of the astronauts who have ventured into space.”

Neil’s sons, Eric and Mark Armstrong, put it best when they describe this unique, first-time award to recognize one past Astronaut Scholar: “Our Astronaut Scholars are among the brightest and most innovative men and women in the field of science, technology, and engineering. Dad believed very strongly in the value of a strong education coupled with hard work, so I have no doubt that he would be enthusiastic about the chance to recognize someone who not only shares those values but has gone on to achieve something amazing with the opportunity.”

The keynote speaker for this year’s event was none other than Michael Collins, the astronaut who delivered and picked up Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on their epic lunar adventure.

Why was this award created in the first place?

The genesis for the award goes back more than 30 years, when the six surviving Mercury 7 astronauts (including Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton) decided to use their influential status in the world of science and exploration to encourage young students to pursue scientific endeavors to help solve the world’s most challenging problems. Their idea crystallized into the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF), originally called the Mercury 7 Foundation. Their mission, and I quote from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation program for that night, was to “Grant merit-based scholarships to the best and brightest university students who excel in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).” Support for this scholarship has grown over the years to include many other NASA astronauts, industry leaders, educational institutions, and individuals.

Because this program produces so many bright young scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians, the founders of the Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence decided to create a special annual recognition for one of these scholars whose work has a tangible impact on the space industry so that others may be inspired.

Why were you selected as a judge, and what was your role as a member of the judging panel?

I sometimes feel like the ‘Forrest Gump’ of technology: I end up collaborating alongside amazing people who have made a huge difference in the world. On this occasion, here I am, CEO of a very cool clean energy company that nobody has heard of (yet) in the company of one of the three astronauts of the Apollo XI mission, the former head of NASA Mike Griffin who chaired our panel, and a roomful of immense brain power fueled by science and technology achievers. I was invited to participate because I was mentoring one of the nominated scholars; and the founders of the award thought my profile was worthy of their judging panel.

Our role as panel judges was to study the nominations of the Astronaut Scholars and rate them based upon several impact measures. The applications, which numbered in the dozens, covered areas as varied as improving women’s health, cleaning the oceans, finding distant galaxies, and making sense of huge volumes of data. The reason they were so varied is that space technology actually touches most scientific areas—from growing crops to the Internet and biotech. The space industry has touched most everything and has been instrumental in elevating our country’s prominence in technology for almost six decades. In a sense, common things that you now wear, communicate with, and even eat started out as rocket science. In that spirit, these Astronaut Scholars pursue all kinds of endeavors after the program. And that is what we were tasked to recognize—the most impactful among the highly impactful—because all were worthy of an award.

So, who won this year’s award?

This year, my fellow judges and I were honored to grant the Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence to Patrick T. Biltgen. The work this young scientist and former Astronaut Scholar has done to make sense of big data has saved many lives, both military personnel and civilians, in war zones. According to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation press release:

“Patrick Biltgen was named an Astronaut Scholar in 2001 while a student at Georgia Tech. He is currently the Director of Analytics for Vencore, Inc., a firm based in Chantilly, VA., that provides high-impact, mission-critical information solutions, engineering and analytics for the U.S. Government. His innovative methods for data integration and analysis resulted in pioneering work on the discipline of Activity-Based Intelligence (ABI). That work has benefitted the nation’s military and intelligence communities by locating and identifying explosive caches used to manufacture improvised explosive devices (IEDs). ABI was credited with saving the lives of dozens of soldiers.”

As I said, the space program has influenced all areas of technology, including the big data initiative for which Patrick won. Here is another press release excerpt, explaining how his work expanded to help civilians:

“Biltgen’s work also has been used to great effect for humanitarian purposes to include documenting treaty violations and monitoring of relief efforts in the Middle East. Biltgen’s work and expertise are in great demand from civil and governmental organizations across the globe.”

What inspiration are you bringing back to Joi Scientific from this experience?

One of the things that stood out among the judges was the feeling that we were part of something much larger. Everyone was inspired to do their part, and by doing so, together, we knew we would obtain amazing results. I would like for the Joi Scientific team to experience that first-hand. I want our scientists and engineers to participate in future award ceremonies, so they can mingle with astronauts, industry leaders, and scholars to see what is possible and to get inspired to continue to pursue what is often viewed as ‘the impossible.’

Thomas Edison once said that invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. To be innovative, you certainly need to work hard and be tenacious, but you simply cannot underestimate the importance of inspiration when it comes to innovation and career success. When I was just 5 years old, I went to my first concert featuring the late, great Ray Charles. The resulting inspiration from this concert translated into a lifelong passion for music. Music was instrumental in teaching me, through my stage performances, important life skills that have shaped me professionally—like how to be effective on stage, improvising and thinking on my feet, and expressing ideas clearly. The impetus for these life skills, which I have worked on diligently for many decades, can be traced back to those original few moments of inspiration that I felt at the Ray Charles concert in 1957.

What young scientists, technologists, and engineers need the most is inspiration to keep doing innovative things that advance all of humanity. Neil Armstrong said it best back in 1969 when he took that first step onto another world. The creation of an award like the Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence is a giant leap in the right direction. It was not only the young scholars who left the ceremony energized; all of us who attended, collectively inspired each other. I am sure there are many similar conversations going on at the companies, schools, and homes of my colleagues who took part in this inspiring event.


Photo credit: NASA on the Commons.
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