Transcript: Space4U podcast, Rachel Lyons

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hello, I am Colleen Kiernan with the Space Foundation and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the amazing people who make today’s space exploration possible. Today we are joined by Rachel Lyons, executive director for Space for Humanity.


Rachel is a key advocate in the advancement of space, technology and exploration. She is the former vice chair of the board of directors, of students for the exploration and development of Space USA, a non-profit that empowers young people to make an impact in space exploration. She is a former public radio host and holds a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering and Economics from the University of Miami.


Astronauts returned from space. The new understanding of life on Earth, from the environment to politics, resources, to energy, to humanitarian issues. Rachel believes this perspective is essential and addressing the challenges we face globally, as well as creating a connection to each other and our home planet Earth.


She is committed to providing opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds to expand their perspective. Both for the futuristic vision of humanity and for the world today. Thank you so much for joining us today, Rachel, thank you so much, Colleen. So the first thing I really want to get into here is what encouraged or inspired you to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering?


That’s a pretty big feat for anyone to want to go into that field. Absolutely. Um, so. I actually did not have an interest in space as a kid. And, um, I was strong in math and science. I had teachers in high school who would, um, who really encouraged me to continue pursuing math and continue pursuing science and were, and told me, um, like affirmed my strengths in it.


And so with their support, I was like, okay, thank you. I could be an engineer. Um, I could, I thought I was like, okay, either business or engineering. And, um, when I applied to college, it was either. I kind of just randomly clicked on the applications like engineering for this school and business for this school.


And then I ended up going to the University of Miami, which I had selected engineering on. And I was like, okay, may as well do it. Um, I went into industrial engineering because it was the most business related one. So I thought, okay, this is a good, this is a good place for me to go. It’ll get me a good job.


I’ll be good at it. It’ll be great. Um, and then when I was 19, I discovered this passion for space. And it completely like shook my world. And I realized that I needed to do everything I could to work in the space industry. And so I switched from industrial engineering to aerospace engineering just simply because I saw there was no other option for me.


I was, I wanted to build the rockets that were going to help us, um, leave this planet and go to others. That is really awesome. Do you remember, was there a specific class, like, was there a spark of a moment that all of a sudden it was like, okay, aerospace engineering is what it needs to be. Yeah, there was a spark of a moment and it definitely was not in school.


Um, yeah, it was through watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. And in the very first episode, he shows the scale of the universe in space and time. And I had like my own experience of the overview effect, which I think we might be chatting about later. Um, like this, seeing how small and insignificant our existence is, is in this big, massive universe.


And at the same time, how miraculous it is that we’re here. And I just knew, like this perspective is so important and I need to do everything I can to share it, share it with other people and everything I can to just have it be my whole life. You know what I mean? That’s it. I was like, okay, aerospace engineering.


It is, I’m going, I’m studying. I want to learn about airplanes and rockets and airplane engines and rocket engines. And I want to work for a space company. That’s awesome. It’s so awesome when there’s kind of that one moment and to just know that this is one of those things that’s going to change your life forever.


So that’s super, super cool. So you kind of mentioned, you didn’t have an interest in any of this really when you were a kid. Um, did you kind of imagine yourself maybe doing some kind of business degree, even when you were, you know, maybe a little kid or middle school? No, I was so not focused in school as a kid.


It just, I, it was so much for me learning and regurgitating information like memorizing and regurgitating information. I didn’t like, it’s funny. I like, remember back in science class when we like, would learn about space and I didn’t ever think about it as a real thing. And I would just memorize and regurgitate and memorize and regurgitate and, and math was math made a lot of sense for me because of like the laws that it follows, you know?


Like it’s like very how, how it’s, um, very linear and how like there’s very strict rules and how it, it all, it’s universal. Like it all applies. Um, and like something about that really made sense for my brain. So I, I really enjoyed math. And in my junior year of high school, I was a teacher’s assistant for algebra.


Um, so I think, so I think that also made me like, Um, take on more of a role in, in math, but yeah, the school was never something I cared about. It was just, um, Me intending to get good grades and go into something that would get me a good job. It’s funny. Cause I was very similar in that regard that I always liked math.


Cause it made sense. Um, and I loved space, but at the same thing, when I was younger, it was always hard for me to understand like how can this go on forever? And. Those concepts were a lot more difficult to comprehend and that, I think that’s why I liked math too. So it just made sense. One plus one is two and it’s always going to be that way and very rigid.


And I think that that was really helpful. Now we mentioned one of your first roles in the space industry was as the vice chair, board of directors for the students, for the exploration and development. Can you share with us what that is and how it helps to connect students to the space industry? Yeah, absolutely.


Um, so students for the exploration and development of space or SEDS for short is a global nonprofit organization. It’s the largest student-run space organization in the world. Um, they have incredible conferences every year. So this space vision conference is the U.S. one. And, um, I, I wouldn’t. I’ve gotten, did they go this year?


I don’t know. I think I’ve met him. I think this year, the first year that I didn’t go, I went for, but I went for four or five years straight. Um, it’s they bring together incredible space industry leaders. Um, it was actually founded by Peter Diamandis was one of the founders and then Jeff Bezos founded the Princeton chapter.


Um, so a lot of really prolific leaders in space started their space career as a student. With that. And now they’re like my mentors who go back to the conference every year. Um, it’s just like all in one place, the most energized group of space students and, and non-space students just space passionate students, um, that you can find that is awesome.


And so what kind of work did you do in your role as the vice chair? Um, I did, I did a bit of, I did some fundraising actually. So, um, I, it was a great growth experience and a really great way to meet space industry leaders and a great way to meet other like-minded students. That honestly it will probably be in my community for, you know, until I don’t work in space anymore, which I have no idea when that will happen.


Um, and, and honestly they’ll still still be my friends after that too. Um, yeah, so it’s a great way to meet people. It’s a great way to network. And, um, what I did as the vice chair was, uh, I did the fundraising for the space vision conference.


So I reached out to different organizations that said, Hey, we’re hosting this conference. You guys donated last year. Will you donate again? Or will you sponsor again? And, um, it was, it’s a pretty easy, yes, honestly, it was not, I wouldn’t say it was a hard job. Awesome. That’s really cool. And I’m sure that helps set you up for what you’re doing now.


You’re currently the executive director for Space for Humanity. So can you tell us what is the actual inspiration behind Space for Humanity? Yeah. Um, so Space for Humanity was founded. To sponsor people from all over the world to go to space commercially. So with Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin, or there’s a few other companies that are in stealth mode right now that are working to make it happen.


So we’ll be sponsoring people to fly with them so that they can go to space and have this experience that astronauts very often have, which is called the overview effect. And so you were mentioning it earlier in my bio, but if you can imagine. Going to space and just a matter of floating in space and then looking back and seeing our little tiny planet and like experiencing this like blue, glowing ball and like the interconnectedness and the beauty and the fragility of everything on it.


And just knowing like this little ball of life is the only ball of life that we know about. And the entire, this entire seemingly infinite universe. That experience will change in astronauts. Life. And they’ll come back down with a completely new understanding of everything that’s happening on our planet.


Um, the astronaut Nicole Stott, who I just interviewed on our webinar this morning, she came back and she started Space for Art Foundation that uses, um, space, education, and arts to inspire children and refugees. And then, um, Anousha, I’m sorry. She came back and she started an initiative specifically to get women and girls into STEM, STEM fields.


And then, um, astronaut Scott Parazynski. He came back and he started something, um, an initiative specifically to get political leaders in the space because he was like, our leadership needs this perspective. We need people all around the world to see and understand that we live on this planet together.


And so. That’s amazing that you guys are doing this and it’s been less than 600 people in the past. What I think it’s been 60 years-ish since Yuri Gagarin went to space. So it’s been less than 600 people since then who have had this experience, um, almost entirely scientists and engineers and about 90% Western men.


And it’s just, it’s not representative of the human population and this and all of the challenges that we face right now are global in nature. We need to look at them from the scale that they’re occurring on. And so in order that that’s what we’re doing is like in order to get to the root of the challenges that we face and actually create a sustainable future on and off the planet, we need to actually live.


With that understanding that we all share this planet together. And, um, so we’ll be, like I said, we’ll be sponsoring people who, who diverse people, not just that very small demographic, um, to have this experience so they can come back down and share, share it with their communities through a social impact program of their own.


So it’s like maybe it’s someone who’s passionate about climate change in combating climate change. Maybe it’s someone who’s passionate about eradicating poverty and maybe it’s someone who is really passionate about educating young women and girls, but whatever it is, these people can come back and use this perspective to say like, Hey everyone, let’s move forward these important, important missions.


Because we all share this planet together and it’s the only one we’ve got. Exactly. And so what all does your specific role entail with Space for Humanity? So I’m the executive director. So I’m basically I’m the conductor of the chorus. Um, and it’s, I mean, which is awesome. This is this, uh, I’ve been doing it for the past year and a half.


It’s been such a learning experience. Um, I’m amazed at the support that we have. Like, you know, I get to work with astronauts and, um, CEOs of companies and founders of companies. And I’m mentored by Frank White who coined the term overview effect. And, um, it’s just. It’s been so amazing for me to have like have this, um, group of people come behind the mission and walk to forward the mission together.


Um, and, and ultimately what we’re working to do is create a global movement. So like astronaut Nicole Stott, she says, It would, it would be amazing to send everyone a space. I would love it. Why can’t we just send the whole world to space? Well, unfortunately you can’t not yet, but we can bring this type of experience down to Earth in a lot of different ways through education, through art, through music, and, um, So Space for Humanity right now is working to create a global movement of like, that’s just, that’s just grounded on the simple fact that we all share this planet together, that we live on a planet.


And so if I’m able to share that with the world, you know, if everyone just knew that and had that as the foundation of their perspective, think about how their behavior might change, think about how, the way they treat each other might change or the way that, um, their political decisions might change. Uh, it, it just, I think all, all of our behavior.


Is rooted in perspective. And so by influencing perspective, we can influence, we can shift behavior as well, too, in a direction that’s. Um, for the greater good, absolutely. And you know, you’re talking about expanding the access to space, you know, for the benefit of, you know, life on Earth by sponsoring these people to go up commercially and you know, it is obvious in your voice.


So you are really passionate about this. And I, I love that. So, you know, you’re obviously super passionate about it. Why do you think that it is so important that we do that you kind of touched on it a little, but you know, why do you think it’d be the best, the biggest benefit of, you know, getting all these people up there and to change these perspectives?


What would be the benefit of that? Yeah. Um, I think, well, yeah, I think it’s exact it’s. Yeah, exactly. That is that by influencing perspectives, we can influence our beliefs, which will then influence behaviors and doing that collectively can then influence culture and impact culture. So it’s like we get to create a culture of interconnectedness, like a culture where we all acknowledge that we share this planet together.


That’s awesome. And so can you tell us a little bit about how do people apply to be a citizen astronaut with Space for Humanity? And can you kind of give us a quick definition of what is a citizen astronaut? Yeah. So a citizen astronaut is someone who is not a NASA astronaut or, yeah. So they’re not being trained by NASA.


Um, there, it’s just, it’s just a citizen, a citizen of our planet and, um, and so specifically in this context, there are people who fly with Space for Humanity or sponsored by Space for Humanity. Um, and if you want to apply to our mission, we take, we do, our applications are closed right now. We will be reopening them.


Um, we take applications on our website and we’re really just looking for people who are leaders in the world, people who are already working to forward a global challenge that can, um, people who. Yeah, people who are passionate about this mission and passionate about forwarding causes of their own. Okay.


And you’d kind of mentioned earlier that, you know, we’ve had about 600 people go to space, um, in the time that we’ve had human space flight and it has not been, um, a good mirror of our population on Earth. It’s primarily white men with scientific backgrounds. So when you’re looking at these applications, do you look for that diversity or is it more about the passion, um, and advancing the mission of Space for Humanity?


Yeah. Both. Um, I think so we’ve honestly, the diversity is like, it comes naturally with our mission. We had almost 4,000 people apply from more than a hundred countries and nations. Um, so the U S is like, I think, I think, I think it was like 20% of our applicants are from the U S but it’s like, not that much.


So the diversity comes pretty easily. Um, one thing that’s important is that we, we do want to send crewed missions. So we want to send a full crew. So depending on flight provider, there’ll be six to eight people. And what we envisioned is having just like a group with very meaningful diversity, um, all like with missions that kind of are interconnected, but that makes sense with each other.


So it’s like not only national diversity, but also like, um, socioeconomic also like, um, educational, diversity, just all different facets of what that would look like so that they can all be complimentary and supportive of each other. And are you going to be offering training as well? Or is it just the kind of recruitment and then, you know, since it is commercially, is it going to be the responsibility of the Virgin Galactics and Blue Origins to be doing that aspect of it?


So those companies will provide, they have their own safety and tactical training that they will provide. Um, And, and we’re working right now on developing this program called the overview leadership program. So it’ll be a trading before and after the flight where these people get to create community with each other, um, support each other and what they’re working on.


And then also talk about and ultimately create action plans around implementing that overview effect experience to forward the challenges that they are passionate about. That’s excellent. And you kind of mentioned, um, just a little bit earlier, um, the Space for Humanity webinars series, which is called To Space for Earth.


Uh, can you share some of the details about that with us? Yeah, so, so that’s our motto. Our motto is To Space for Earth. So it’s like we are going to space for the benefit of life on Earth. And our webinar, we just launched, um, given the current external environment. Um, it’s we think it’s important to, like I was, yeah, we were chatting about before we started, is bringing hope and inspiration to the daily lives of people.


Um, and obviously the computer is the main way that we’re all getting that. So we launched a few weeks ago, this webinar series, which has been. Super successful so far. Um, our first episode we had Dylan Taylor, our founder. Who’s an amazing space leader. Um, and, and then we had Cas Anvar who’s, um, an actor from The Expanse hosting.


And then today, just earlier today we had an astronaut Nicole Stott on, and I interviewed her. And then we’re also planning a launch party for the SpaceX will launch at the end of the month. Um, just celebrate the, um, yeah, the first launch since 2011 of humans from U.S. soil. So it’s just a way to say, like, yeah, look at what, look at what we’re doing in space and look at what the future is going, will hold as well, kind of a celebration of everyone involved.


Um, so we’re working through this webinar series to, uh, create this new, this perspective of the overview effect created this whole Earth perspective and share that with our audience right now. Awesome. I’m sure it was an honor and just a ton of fun to talk with Nicole. She’s so awesome. That’s, that’s really incredible because you know, a lot of people that I get to talk to are the ones that I think are going to be some of our future astronauts, which I always think is really neat.


Um, but you know, to talk to someone who’s actually been is a whole, the whole other perspective, you know, those of us that would like to go. Um, but like you were saying with the overview effect, once you’ve been there’s, it’s a whole different mindset.


We can have kind of a comprehension of it, but actually having that is completely different. So I’m sure that was just a ton of fun for you today. Yeah, it was, it was amazing. And she has an incredible perspective and, um, yeah, she’s doing really great work. And where can people find the webinars series at? and then we also announced it on all of our social media channels, which is at Space for Humanity.


Okay. Perfect. Well, that’s great. We’ll make sure to put that in our comments too, so that all of our listeners can go and check that out. Cause I know that’s and then I’m going to be checking out later this week.


That sounds really awesome. Thanks Colleen. Absolutely. Now I know you’ve done a lot of public speaking, um, which can be really difficult. We were talking before we started here that. Um, I also do some teaching of public speaking and it’s the number two fear of people around the world after death. So that doesn’t everyone fear and that is public speaking.


So it just goes to show how scary it is and how much people really just hate it. And then, you know, not only is it something that’s difficult for a lot of people, but then you’re talking about space, which is a pretty complex topic. Really. So how do you bring these two challenging things together? And do you have any advice for people who.


You know, maybe are in the space industry and want to be a little bit better. How do you cater to your audience? Yeah, totally. That’s such a good question. Um, well the first thing is same. I it’s been, it’s been like one of my biggest growth points I think, is being able to speak in front of audiences and still not something that’s totally comfortable for me.


And yeah, I’ve done it like more than 20 times at this part for like thousands of people. Um, And I think that, well, the biggest thing that I do is like prep, like really preparing some people can go up there and just wing it. Right. As of now, I, I can’t, or I don’t, for the most part, like I just I’ve really, um, I prepare a lot.


And part of that preparation is like getting my mind, right. So like doing whatever I need to do to just get myself like centered and focused and like, and like just feeling comfortable. Sometimes I might call a friend or whatever, just something to like get me totally like clear. Um, and then another thing that I do is, um, thinking like, sorry, kind of like setting an intention before.


So thinking like, what do I want all these people to leave with? Um, and, and really getting touch with my passion for this subject, because I’m lucky because I get to go up there and just talk about something that I love, like from the bottom of my heart, you know? And so if I’m really nervous that I don’t get to show, share that love with people and love is infectious, you know, like people can feel it when they’re sitting there.


So, um, So it’s actually like, it’s like a gift to be able to share something that you love with people. And so getting myself present to that, it’s like, I get to share this thing that I love with these people. Then it, then it can make me go up there and be more and more competent. Um, and, and yeah, I would say I, I get it and be, and just prepare, like be prepared and, um, And be present, you know, like don’t it’s so people can tell if your heart’s there, if it’s not like it’s, and there’s nothing wrong with either, like you can read from a paper and people are going to give the message that you’re trying to say, but it’s like, it’s that quote, right?


It’s like people aren’t gonna remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. Yeah. So being able to going up there and being able to share my emotional connection to what I’m doing. Is the most important and compelling thing that I can do right now and also having data to back that up, you know?


Absolutely. And I love that you mentioned that quote. I use that a lot. As well, because it’s not about what you did, it’s how you made people feel. And that’s why I mentioned earlier, you can hear the passion in your voice, and I love that. And that’s the sort of thing that I feel always gets people more excited because space can be intimidating and, you know, I’ve thought multiple times, well, if I could go, what I, because it’s scary to think about actually leaving the planet and yeah, that perspective would just be incredible, but it can be really scary.


But when you hear people talk and have that passion, then it almost gives you that comfort a little, if it’s an uncertain topic of, okay, maybe I could do this or, you know, maybe I can learn about this or whatever the topic is. And so I would say just from the passion in your voice that I hear that you’re, you’re the perfect person to be giving these presentations.


So yeah, it’s definitely it’s there. Yeah. Yeah. So one thing that I do want to know as well is, so you’re doing all of this. Do you have any plans of trying to get off of this planet? Hmm. I love this question. Like this question, like reminds you of what I’m doing. I’m like, Oh yeah. Okay. I’m sending people to space.


Um, do I want to go to space? It’s a great question. I do. And I honestly don’t think about it. Like I just don’t really think about it. Um, I’m very confident. That I’m going to in my lifetime, my ultimate life goal is to go to the Moon. Um, but right now I’m just not, I’m not focused on me going to space and focused on other people growing the space.


And I’m focused on sharing this perspective right now. Absolutely. So where do you see humankind in regards to space travel in the next 50 years? It’s a good question. Um, I think I would hope that we’re we have Moon settlements by then. Um, I don’t, uh, I don’t know if we will be farther or not. I mean, I think, I think there’ll be some humans on Mars, but I don’t think they’ll be settlements.


Um, I think that space tourism will be a normal thing. I think that people will be doing point to point travel normally. So like taking off from, um, a space part in New Mexico and landing an hour later and in Australia, I think that’s going to it it’ll really revolutionize travel. Um, I think that, yeah, I think the overview effect is just going to be a known thing.


I think Space for Humanity is going to be a known thing. Um, and, and I think it’s my hope that people from all around the world will be understanding the fact that this pale blue dot is, is a special one. And it’s the only one that got not stuff like that. I know I would definitely be on board with the change of travel just within our planet.


Like you’re saying, you know, it’d be nice to get to Australia in an hour because we’re both in Colorado and to go to Australia, that’s a whole day, if not more, depending on layovers and I’ve wanted to go there and it’d be nice if you could do it in an hour because it’s, you know, by the time you do all the other stuff of checking in and waiting.


It takes forever to, to travel. And it’s not what it used to be, obviously when he was days of stagecoach and that sort of thing. But yeah. That is something that I greatly look forward to in our future is to be able to travel a little bit faster and, you know, get a better view of the planet because, you know, if you go far enough in distance, a plane gets a good altitude that you can kind of see the curvature of the Earth.


And that’s always really cool for me, but to do something in that kind of speed, you’d probably have to get even higher. And I think that would do a lot for. For people, even if they didn’t want to go to space, but to have that perspective change that you’ve been talking about. Totally. Totally. So one last question for you.


Um, and this was one that we didn’t originally have planned. Um, but you know, we’ve talked a little bit about, you know, having the diversity and all of that, of people going into space and being representative of the actual citizens of Earth that the humanity that we have here. So. Do you have an opinion or advice for women or minorities, the non-represented or as represented people who want to go to space of how they can maybe overcome the challenges or what they could do to, to change it.


And, and it’s hard because there’s so many different, um, ins and outs to that, you know, like depending on their socioeconomic status. Um, do you like, do you have the availability to be able to volunteer? Um, do you have access to education? Um, and, and I’m gonna, I would assume that someone’s taking the time to listen to this podcast.


Then the answer would be yes for those. And if, and if, if it is then, um, at their local schools, either start a SEDS chapter or join us at the chapter. Um, and a lot of times schools will, um, will sponsor and also said, sponsors people to go to this space, vision conference. So there’s, they can get gain access through that.


And then when they get there, um, just go out of your way to meet people and meet the people who are speaking and let them know how much you love, what they’re working on. And, um, for me, that’s how I got to where I was today. It was like being at these places, in person with these people and talking to them.


And I like my first couple of years, I would just talk to everyone. You know, like everyone who said something that like, that was compelling to me, I would go and chat with afterwards after their talk. And sometimes it panned out some that sometimes they didn’t care. And sometimes they were like, they actually wanted to listen and they became, you know, months later became a mentor and it doesn’t all happen at once either.


Like a lot of times, like those it’s like that first seed that’s planted that then grows into something at one year, two years, even more later. Um, and so I’m, so it’s also not a rush, you know, like it’s like, it’s not a rush and work hard. And you really just hit on something that, especially in a lot of our recent episodes, we’ve been talking to people and networking, networking, networking, networking, um, that is huge.


And I think, especially for this industry, um, there are so many people who are willing to be mentors. Um, like you’ve said, and that’s. It’s such a big key into learning more about the industry, finding where you can fit in. Um, cause we were even talking beforehand that, you know, it’s not just the engineers and the scientists and the astronauts, you know, there’s people from all walks of life that are needed in the space industry.


And a lot of it is networking, you know, that’s huge. Yeah. And then, and then there’s also, um, programs out there, like the Brooke Owens fellowship, um, the Matthew Isakowitz fellowship, um, that are specifically the Brooke Owens one is specifically for women and girls. Um, and. And you matched, they get matched up with mentors and host institutions.


And it’s also specifically for like women of diversity, like diversity of all kinds. Um, so there’s, there’s more and more support coming out there to help too to say, okay, let’s, let’s, let’s bring this in here, but let’s make this happen. Yeah. And it’s really, it’s, you know, kind of the mission of Space for Humanity and, you know, for the Space Foundation and really this podcast that space is for everybody, you know, we all have a place in it.


So I think that’s really important for everyone to understand. Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, I think that was all the questions I had. Did you have anything you wanted to add in that we didn’t talk about? No. You want to learn more about what we’re doing at Space for Humanity, they can visit our website and there are a number of ways to get involved.


Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Rachel, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much, Colleen, and that will conclude this episode of the Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast. You can subscribe to this podcast and leave us a review on Podbean, Apple podcasts, and Google play.


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Space4U Podcast: Rachel Lyons – Space for Humanity