AU space expert shares award with Carl Sagan, Walter Cronkite

School of Public Affairs Professor Howard McCurdy has always been a bit of a science geek.

“When I was a kid, I built rockets in my basement, I read science fiction,” he said. “I corresponded with the family of a cousin of mine about space exploration, about extraterrestrial life.”

Decades later, he’s built a reputation as an expert in space policy. He’s published seven books and countless journal publications discussing everything from robots on Mars to organizational change in NASA. He’s a regular on NPR and cable news.

Despite all of this experience, he was still surprised when he received word last month that he had been given the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award from the American Astronautical Society.

“I just got the notification and that was it,” he said with a laugh. “I wasn’t expecting it at all.”

The American Astronautical Society is a network of professionals engaged in space related activities, according to their website. The JFK Astronautics Award is given every year as a lifetime achievement award, McCurdy said.

McCurdy now shares an award with household names such as Carl Sagan, Buzz Aldrin and Walter Cronkite.

“I looked up who they granted it to before, and it was a pretty [impressive] group,” he said.

Despite McCurdy’s early fascination with space, he didn’t start out in that field.

“It was just a hobby interest for me, it wasn’t an academic interest,” he said.

After getting his Ph.D. from Cornell University, McCurdy worked in the Executive Office of the President as an analyst on the war on poverty.

“When you’re working downtown, the projects you get are the things that people give you,” he said. “I just found that, a day without research and writing and teaching, to me, is a day that is sort of wasted.”

McCurdy started teaching at AU and focused on environmental science. He spent time at national parks in Kenya and worked as a volunteer park ranger at Mount Rainier National Park.

“It’s more scenic than science,” McCurdy said. “I prefer the space policy, I think it’s more exotic.”

McCurdy became involved in space policy at AU almost 15 years after he became a professor.

“I walked by a bulletin board and saw an announcement that somebody wanted help with the history of the decision to build the international space station.”

While his primary appointment is still at AU, McCurdy is currently spending his sabbatical working with his alma mater University of Washington to help it expand its science policy program. McCurdy is helping to set up a stronger curriculum while also teaching a course on science and technology policy.

“They have a very large science program,” McCurdy said, “but have very little in the area of governmental policy for science and technology.”

McCurdy’s knowledge on space policy is in high demand beyond academia. He has recently been commissioned to produce a book regarding government innovation and space policy.

“It is really the focus of my space policy work, innovation,” he said. “How do you encourage people in the private sector and the government to come up with innovative new techniques, new ways of getting to space?”

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