Carnegie Mellon University

Jacki Cortese CMU

November 30, 2020

Sending civilians to space with Jacki Cortese

By Bill Brink

On a whim, Jacki Cortese fired up Google. 

She’d been obsessed with space since she wrote a book report about the space shuttle in second grade, and had loved history since high school. After a summer internship on Capitol Hill, she was desperate to get back to Washington, DC.

“I literally typed – this is not a joke – typed into Google, ‘space history internships,’ not kidding, and the NASA history program office and headquarters in DC popped up,” Cortese said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is cool.’” 

That’s when things began to coalesce for Cortese, who graduated Carnegie Mellon University in 2012 with a primary major in History and an additional major in International Relations and Politics. Now she is a Senior Manager of Civil Space Government Relations at Blue Origin, one of the leading commercial spaceflight companies.

“Our vision at Blue Origin is millions of people living and working in space, which is obviously a long-term goal,” she said. “But we think that the key barrier is that there is an access problem. Getting to space is too expensive.”

If Cortese wanted to work in the spaceflight industry, Carnegie Mellon was always going to be a stepping stone, because Pittsburgh native dreamed of going there. Her fifth-grade gym teacher’s sister was Gerri Seidl, the women’s coach at Carnegie Mellon. “You’re really good at basketball,” he told Cortese. “Maybe someday you can play for my sister at Carnegie Mellon.” And she did. 

“It was a lot at first, but frankly, everyone who played sports at Carnegie Mellon was so motivated and academically talented, it was like you had this cohort of people who were all going through the same thing, so it was a lot easier to do it,” she said. 

Between her sophomore and junior year, Cortese received an internship through the Pittsburgh Foundation, which sponsored one student per summer to intern in DC through a partnership with Marquette University. She lived four to a room in a rowhouse with about forty interns, thirty-eight of which had the boring tasks of giving tours and getting coffee while working in a member office. Thanks to Carnegie Mellon, she received a position on a committee.

“The girl who was a staffer on the [House] Transportation and Infrastructure Committee had gone to Carnegie Mellon,” Cortese said. “She picked me to be on the committee [staff], so I actually got to learn how to write bills and stuff because I wasn’t in a member office, and everyone was very jealous.”

In love with DC and obsessed with politics, Cortese added the IRP major when she returned in the fall. She loved the primary-source research that both History and IRP required, the deep-dive investigations into a topic to formulate and back up an argument. She especially loved classes with Taube Professor Kiron Skinner, the Director of the Institute for Politics and Strategy.

“I remember classes with her were so freaking cool,” Cortese said. “It felt like you were being taught by someone who lived it. Her stories were cooler almost than the academic training of the whole thing, because you were really getting a sense for that first-hand knowledge from someone who lived it, someone who made policy and created parts of our political structure in society.”

Then came the NASA internship. Zero percent change she’d get it, she thought, until she learned the interviewer received his advanced degrees from Pitt. They talked about Pittsburgh, Oakland, and O Fries, and she got the internship. That summer she edited NASA history books while working in the NASA History Office, an in-house publisher for NASA and the home of the NASA archives. 

“The chief photographer of NASA brought me to a congressional hearing with him where the current NASA administrator was testifying,” Cortese said. “So it was this mix of space and politics, and I was like, this is the best day of my life. The photographer took a photo of me talking to the administrator at this hearing and it’s framed in my house.” 

Cortese was deciding between Teach for America and postgraduate education at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College, but the decision became easy when she was accepted into the DC track of Heinz’s Master of Public Policy and Management. She interned with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and industry group for companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin. At the time, the space industry was new enough that those types of companies weren’t hiring lobbyists, so she got a job at Deloitte, consulting for the Department of Homeland Security.

“I ran a training and communications project, I processed discovery documents for an agency, I did workforce engagement for TSA,” Cortese said. “The cool thing is, those tenants of professionalism, client service, concise presentation – all those lessons learned of that base knowledge were applicable. When I got to Blue Origin after Deloitte, those were things that other people didn’t have because they hadn’t been consultants. It was immensely helpful.” 

A sign of a space company’s maturity, Cortese said, is when they start filling policy and communications jobs in addition to hiring engineers. Blue Origin got there in 2017, and thanks to connections she’d made while interning at the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, they called her. Now she spends her days talking to members of Congress responsible for NASA programs and their staff, updating them on both Blue Origin’s work and the space industry as a whole.

“One of the other cool things, and I think Carnegie Mellon really prepared me well for this, is that a big part of this job is liaising with our technical teams, talking to the engineers at Blue Origin, because to lobby, you need to have the most up-to-date information on where we’re at and how the products are coming,” Cortese said. “What technical milestone can we share on the Hill with legislators, translating those complex technical tidbits into something that’s digestible and understandable, is the biggest part of the everyday job.”