Nurturing the Future: NASA’s Mercury 7 Astronauts Scholarship Program

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on August 21, 2018
Traver Kennedy
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 “NASA introduced the Project Mercury Astronauts to the world on April 9, 1959, only six months after the agency was established. Known as the Mercury 7 or Original 7, they are: front row, left to right, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and Gordon Cooper.” Photo and text courtesy of NASA.

An Interview with Traver Kennedy, CEO of Joi Scientific, on the 2018 Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence

Our third article celebrating NASA’s 60th anniversary coincides with the 2018 Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence Innovators Gala, which takes place on August 25. This event honors the winner of the Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence, which is “a prestigious recognition for scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians who continue to advance the boundaries of their fields.”

The award is given by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF), a partnership endowed by  Neil’s friend Jim Hays, the Armstrong family, the Mercury 7 astronauts, and The Purdue Research Foundation. It recognizes 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.”

This year’s stellar program includes astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station. We interviewed Traver Kennedy, Joi Scientific’s CEO and one of the nine members of the judging panel who selected the promising scientist for this year’s award among dozens of qualified ASF scholars.

What kind of people apply for this prestigious award?

ASF Astronaut Scholar Alumni are eligible for nomination. These are scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians (STEM) who work in diverse fields that advance human understanding of our world. Their fields of study include scientific discovery, the development of creative technologies, new and advanced processes and systems, significant patent applications, novel prototypes, and other innovative contributions in the areas of aeronautics, weather sciences, astrophysics, underwater research, and life sciences among other disciplines related to science and technology.

How do you select the winner of the award?

As you can imagine, the credentials of all nominees are quite impressive. It is not an easy job to select only one winner among dozens of distinguished and equally promising STEM professionals. Ultimately, the winner’s achievements should have, as our guidelines mandate, “a demonstrable impact on society through their effect on science, technology, industry, global leadership, or the inspiration of future generations.” The award is a signal to inspire others to choose a career in these impactful fields. The scholarship program also reflects the qualities of all astronauts for whom training, learning, teamwork, and leadership are critical. Neil was a mentor and teacher and was known to hold weekly tutorials related to space and flying. He was not only inspirational in his achievement but also in his curiosity, and his person―the award reflects the man. The winner is simply the individual who, in our collective opinion, best embodies the spirit of the award in a way that can encourage many others to follow a similar path.

Who composes the judging panel?

Each year, when the time comes to begin our work on reading applications, discussing the nominees, and deliberating on the candidates to select the winner, I find myself surrounded by a group of extremely talented and prominent judges and ask myself, “Why me?” The judging panel is comprised of nine individuals qualified to evaluate and select the most accomplished nominee. You can’t keep track of all the advanced academic degrees that the judges collectively have. The group is chaired by a former NASA Administrator and aerospace engineer, Michael Griffin, and includes ambassadors, scientists, astronauts, AI pioneers, authors… and yours truly. That’s why I ask, “Why me?” I come from a creative/artistic background. My goal was to be a musician, yet my path took me to the business side of technology, and I was fortunate to have some wins in world-changing technologies like cloud computing, and of course, Joi Scientific. However, nothing compares to the talent and achievements of my judging panel peers.

What kind of value do you bring to the judging panel?

I think creative individuals add value to the judging panel by providing a perspective from an experimenter’s point of view. After all, experiments are just creative ways to prove a hypothesis. Nothing progresses from academia into the world of applied science and math unless it has been proven through experimentation. The ASF is looking for individuals whose work has the potential to be applied to solve a real problem in the future. My experience as a creative person on the business side of technology enables me to share with the panel a perspective of using creativity to find economical ways to solve problems through the application of science and technology. Innovation does not happen in a vacuum. Resiliency and serendipity play as much of a role as ingenuity and common sense in making a vision real. 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. You simply cannot play jazz and improvise unless you have mastered your instrument, are in tune and syncopation with the other players. Innovation is no different.

You’ve been on the judging panel before, what is different this time?

I am encouraged by the spirit of innovation of the ASF. Every year, the program gets richer and more interesting. At the Innovators Gala, what the world sees is an awards ceremony. Behind it, there is a solid mentoring program that is centered around crafting an individual development plan for each ASF scholar, not just the winner of the Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence. This year, the foundation created a portal to manage and better execute our mentorship work. Many of these young women and men grew up with apps and technology, and a portal like this brings mentoring into their way of doing things. I find it to be a substantial tool to follow the “curriculum,” share information, and communicate with ASF scholars.

What kind of ASF scholars have you been assigned to mentor?

I have been lucky to mentor two young and energetic individuals who I’m sure will go on to do remarkable things for science and technology. Last year I mentored a scholar who was planning to pursue a Ph.D. in atmospheric science. To maximize the value that a graduate student gets from a Ph.D., the candidate needs to know how to operate in a large organization―in her case, MIT. My mentoring effort concentrated on the soft skills needed to find the right professors and access the right knowledge to eventually turn a Ph.D. into a valuable step towards a breakthrough discovery, invention, or academic career. Before her, I mentored a mid-career innovator that already had a Ph.D. in Engineering, so he had the science expertise covered but sought coaching in entrepreneurship and commercial skills to materialize an idea he had been working to bring to market. In both mentorship experiences, I feel as though I received as much value from them as I gave. Young scientists and technologists have as much to teach as they have to learn.

Who won the 2018 Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence?

This year, my fellow judges and I were honored to grant the Neil Armstrong Award of Excellence to Larry Bradley, Ph.D. He is an astrophysicist and Sr. Systems Software Engineer at the Space Telescope Institute, the science operations center for the Hubble Space Telescope, and the James Webb Space Telescope. His research focuses on how galaxies formed and evolved in the early universe. This research has implications not only for our understanding of the genesis of the universe but our understanding of gravity, since the light of the galaxies that Larry studies is bent by space objects as it travels to our telescopes after billions of years.

His field is abuzz with the recent deep space observation of a “star’s light redden as it passed our galaxy’s central black hole,” Sky & Telescope reports. “This change, called gravitational redshift, is one of the long-sought confirmations that Einstein’s master framework of gravity correctly describes how the universe works.” Undoubtedly, Larry’s career and achievements will certainly inspire new generations of scholars. Follow the 2018 Innovators Gala on August 25 to learn more about his amazing work.


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