Laurie Cantillo, NASA communicator and educator, is on a mission to get more people engaged in science — especially girls.
Laurie Cantillo (Jour’80) was fresh out of college when she first spotted the Milky Way during an outdoor education trip in Utah. Since then, the director of communication and education at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been on a mission to share the wonders of space with the world.
At CU, Cantillo produced a space film in her astronomy intro course. It was shown in Fiske Planetarium and set to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album. After graduating, she worked as a radio anchor, reporter and program director for 30 years before landing in NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she was a writer and public affairs specialist for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, led by Alan Stern (PhDAstro’89).
When Pluto became visible through a sequence of images in 2015, Cantillo noticed a large bright spot that resembled a heart. That day, she wrote a short article about the icy formation now called Sputnik Planitia and shared it on NASA’s website and social media channels.
I appreciate the value of audio and wanted to share the powerful stories of the people behind our missions — their struggles, and how ‘failing’ is an essential ingredient for success.
The next morning, the mainstream media had erupted with headlines featuring Pluto’s “heart.”
While in D.C., Cantillo produced NASA’s first podcast, Gravity Assist, which refers to the slingshot effect a spacecraft gets when it uses the gravity of a planet or object to speed up or alter its course. The podcast’s first season, in 2017, was hosted by chief scientist Jim Green and featured lively discussions about top discoveries and mysteries in space science. Each episode’s guest reveals the “gravity assist” that propelled them into their field of research.
“I appreciate the value of audio and wanted to share the powerful stories of the people behind our missions — their struggles, and how ‘failing’ is an essential ingredient for success,” said Cantillo, who grew up in Parker, Colo.
Today, Cantillo and her California-based JPL team often set up telescopes in public spaces and wait for curious viewers to walk by: “It never gets old to see how surprised and delighted people are to see the Moon’s craters, Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s stripes through a telescope for the first time,” she said.
Cantillo credits her son David for planting the idea of a career pivot to NASA. He had encouraged her to apply.
“I was able to achieve a couple extra years of ‘coolness’ by working at NASA and JPL. With a teenager, that’s priceless,” she said.
Cantillo hopes her work inspires others to learn more about space and pursue STEM careers.
“When I was growing up, it never occurred to me to be a scientist or engineer, since there were so few female role models,” she said. “Had I been in school today, I might have chosen a different path.”
When she sees young girls wearing NASA T-shirts and playing with Space Legos, or receives a letter from a child who now wants to be a scientist after meeting someone from JPL, she knows her work is having an impact.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Cantillo said.