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Explore Outer Space


Emily Callandrelli against a backdrop of stars.

Questions by Becky Lofstead
Photographed by Jennifer Shephard

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live on Mars? Or what zero-gravity feels like? Well, Emily Calandrelli, BS BS ’10, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, delves into those topics and other mysteries of the universe in the Saturday morning “Xploration Outer Space” TV show syndicated on Fox. Calandrelli, a Goldwater and Truman scholar who also graduated from MIT, hosts the show that is designed to open kids’ eyes to space discovery and encourage science-based education among children and young adults — especially girls.

What are some of the crazy, creative ways you've shown space and science concepts on the show?

I guess my all-time favorite experiment is showing viewers what it is like to fly like an astronaut inside the Vomit Comet — a plane that creates a microgravity environment for the people flying inside. You can literally float and do somersaults inside it because you’re essentially free-falling inside the plane, causing a feeling of weightlessness. It’s so similar to what astronauts experience that they actually use the Vomit Comet to train before the launch into space. 

I also really loved the episode where I met Dick Rutan, a world-renowned test pilot who flew the first nonstop flight around the world. He told me what it was like to complete this incredible milestone in aviation and then took me for a spin in an experimental aerobatic airplane that his brother, Burt Rutan, who is also famous in the world of aviation, had designed.

Last year I went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal Studios with a West Virginia astronaut, Jon McBride. He showed me how the various g-forces you experience on amusement park rides are similar to the forces you feel when you launch into space and orbit the Earth.  

This year I went hunting for meteorites in Arizona with a professional meteorite hunter, Geoff Notkin. We used metal detectors to search for them (because most meteorites have a higher percentage of iron in them). Geoff helped me find one of my own, so now I have a meteorite from the asteroid belt in my collection!  

Why is it important to get more kids involved in space science?

I think students should pursue science and engineering because, for one, it’s fun to understand how nature and the universe work. But I would also argue that you can do cooler things as a student if you pursue a science or engineering major. There are also funds targeted toward science students for internships, research stipends, scholarships and more. It’s a great way to travel the world doing interesting work — and get paid to do it.  

What's next for you?

I was selected as a field correspondent for “Bill Nye Saves the World,” a Netflix series that will be released April 21. I’ve completed filming, and while I can’t talk much about it yet, we delve into a range of science topics that will be pretty fascinating for everyone (even non-science nerds)! Unlike Bill’s first big show “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” this show will be more for adults, although I'm sure kids will love it, too (who doesn't love Bill Nye?). The series will feature a ton of guest stars, fun comedy bits and other correspondents including YouTube star Derek Muller and Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss. 

I recently started dabbling in YouTube work as a guest science writer and host for  Discovery News

Also, I'm working on a children’s chapter-book series (the "Ada Lace" series) that I'm really excited about. It features a female heroine, Ada Lace, who loves building gadgets and gizmos. She’s from West Virginia and recently moved to San Francisco. Ada uses her techie skills to build robots and works with her best friend to solve mysteries and challenges in their lives. The books, which are available to pre-order on Amazon now, will be published by Simon & Schuster and appear in bookstores around the world in the fall. 

When did you fall in love with science and, specifically, space exploration and discovery?  

My story with science is different than most of my friends and others I’ve met in the space industry. I wasn’t one of those kids who wanted to be an astronaut at a young age. I was just good at math – and liked it. In high school [Morgantown High School] my teachers told me that a good career for a student interested in mathematics would be engineering, so I pursued it in college and absolutely fell in love with it.   

While at WVU, I learned about the NASA Space Grant Consortium – a program that offers college students lots of opportunities for student fellowships, research and K-12 outreach. I jumped right in and took advantage of all the great things available through the space industry. One of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life is fly on the Vomit Comet – a plane that creates a microgravity environment for the people flying inside – and it was absolutely free to students involved in this program. 

Also, through my summer engineering internships, I was able to travel to different facilities in Ohio, California, D.C., Texas, Mexico – even China – all because I was pursuing this amazing career in science and engineering.  

Who are some of your mentors – and how did they influence you?  

I think the greatest single asset at WVU is its professors. The West Virginia NASA Space Grant director, Dr. Jaridi, and my engineering professors Dr. John Kuhlman and Dr. Victor Mucino made an incredible impact on my career. They were all extremely knowledgeable about not only their course subjects, but all the opportunities available – helping me apply for various scholarships, internships and fellowships. Without their help, guidance and thoughtful recommendation letters, I wouldn’t be where I am today.   

You earned both the Goldwater Scholarship (for talented students in science and math) and the Truman Scholarship (for exceptional work in public service) during your undergraduate years at WVU. How did those awards aid you on your journey?  

That validation was the first evidence that I could compete academically on a national stage. I was told by other students that “no one ever gets those scholarships, so don’t waste your time.” So when that didn’t turn out to be the case, it gave me confidence to pursue other challenges in life. It taught me not to be afraid to go after seemingly impossible things, because sometimes they might just work out. It’s what enabled me to apply for grad school at MIT, where I completed my master’s degrees in aeronautics and astronautics and another one in technology and policy. This ultimately led me to do a research stint at Harvard. Eventually all of these experiences helped me land my TV show, “Xploration Outer Space.”

How did the show ‘Xploration Outer Space’ come about?  

West Virginia University actually had a hand in that, too, because when I was there the University was producing videos with various students to promote their colleges – and they selected me to help with the College of Engineering video. My executive producer at Steve Rotfeld Productions saw it (and some amateur videos I had done) on YouTube and just happened to be looking for a young woman with a strong background in aerospace who had a good on-camera presence. They literally just e-mailed me after graduation and said “Would you like to be the host of an aerospace show for kids?” And of course, I was like, “Yeah, that sounds amazing.”  

Where do you film your show?

I am based in San Francisco, but we literally travel all around the country to film on location. I’m traveling about every other week – Florida, Texas – even back home to West Virginia. 

How do you come up with ideas for the show?  

As one of the producers, I seek out topics that are interesting scientifically but also really visual and entertaining. Over the past decade I’ve made a lot of friends in the aerospace industry, so I often reach out to them and discuss ideas and concepts. It’s great to be in front of the camera, but it is even more rewarding to be the creator of what gets shown. I work with a great team of writers, editors and other producers who help create a show that we’re really proud of. 

What age group and demographic are you targeting? 

In the U.S. we have some 550,000 viewers who watch the show each week. We cater our shows to students in high school and college, but kids as young as 6 contact me to tell me how much they like the show, especially when they see episodes about searching for aliens or traveling to Mars. 

What do parents tell you about the show? 

One of the more interesting things I hear from parents of young girls is that they are thrilled that their kids are talking about science and space travel – and, just as important, that they have a fun female role model talking about science. But I also hear from parents of young boys who say [their child says]: “I want to have a girlfriend who’s smart like Emily when I grow up.” It’s not the type of sentiment I expected to hear when I started this show, but it’s certainly an interesting outcome! I love that my executive producer wanted a female to host the show. I think that’s just so important for both little girls and little boys.  

How long do you plan to continue hosting the show?

We are already in Season 4, and that is the focus. The fact that the show keeps getting picked up year after year is remarkable. Most pilots of this nature get canceled after the first season so our goal is to keep continuing to come up with interesting topics and creative ways to showcase space adventures.