- Associated Press - Saturday, July 17, 2021

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — When people told Kellie Gerardi to shoot for the stars, they didn’t think she’d be so literal about it.

But she took it seriously, and the 32-year-old Jupiter woman is heading to space.

Gerardi will be aboard a future space flight on the VSS Unity out of New Mexico. The price point for the trip, operated by Virgin Galactic, is about $600,000, she said.

Virgin founder Richard Branson on Sunday completed the initial Unity flight, which lasted about 15 minutes.

Some of the details of the research mission are still under wraps, like the date and exactly where the flight will go, but Gerardi said she doesn’t have an ounce of nervousness about the trip.

“I’m so excited, and so ready to fly,” she told The Palm Beach Post via email.

When Gerardi, a Jupiter native, was growing up, she had plenty of access to rocket launches that piqued her interest in space travel. But she said it wasn’t until she became an adult that she realized she could be a part of it.

Gerardi said she first became involved with The Explorers Club, a group founded in New York in 1904 to promote scientific exploration and field study. She then connected with networks of people trying to open commercial access to space.

She started working with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a private spaceflight industry group headquartered in Washington, D.C., first in communications and then business development of companies like Virgin Galactic.

She considers herself a citizen scientist who represents a “new breed” of astronaut. Gerardi has studied bioastronautics through the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, a citizen-science institute based in Boulder, Colorado, that specializes in space-related fields.

“I’m excited to help ensure that this becomes a consistent pipeline of researchers flying to space with their experiments,” she said.

As a payload specialist, Gerardi will carry multiple experiments with her on her flight.

One is a biomonitoring experiment using a wearable sensor system developed by Montreal-based Carré Technologies. The sensor system is a “smart undershirt” outfitted with sensors designed to measure the biological effects of spaceflight on humans.

The Astroskin sensor system currently is being used on the International Space Station, where it helps monitor the effects of microgravity on ISS astronauts, Gerardi said.

“My spaceflight will be the first time we’ll be able to collect data during launch, re-entry, and landing, though, so I’m excited to contribute to that novel data collection,” she said.

Gerardi isn’t just interested in space in her professional life. She’s obsessed with the final frontier at home, too.

One of the most exciting parts of her trip is the ability to share the news with her husband, Steven, and their 3-year-old daughter, Delta Victoria, whose name is a nod to the Delta-V symbol used in spaceflight dynamics.

“I get emotional when I think about what it means for her to watch me, her mommy, become an astronaut,” Gerardi said. “In Delta’s mind, flying to space is just another thing moms do. She’s going to grow up knowing that not even the sky is a limit. That mental framework is something I wish for all children.”

Gerardi’s flight will be historic in another way: She’ll be the first female payload specialist to travel to space with Virgin Galactic.

“Less than 100 women in history, and only a handful of moms, have ever flown to space,” Gerardi said. “And I really believe representation matters.”

As she joins the likes of Sally Ride and Kathleen Rubins, Gerardi said she hopes to continue the push to “democratize space” for people beyond government-trained astronauts.

“I want to see people from all backgrounds experience spaceflight. I think humanity will be better off for it,” she said. “To me, the Space Age is a broader cultural movement, and our next giant leap will require the contributions of artists, engineers, and everyone in between.”

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