Alumnus Applies Humanities Training to Space Exploration


Jonathan Krezel ’96 (CLAS), ’01 MPA outside of Walter Childs Wood Hall, home of the Department of History on the UConn Storrs campus. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Jonathan Krezel ’96 (CLAS), ’01 MPA began his professional association with NASA on the heels of a major tragedy: On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during its return flight to Earth, killing all seven crew members on board.

At the time, Krezel—who majored in history at UConn—was a graduate student at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. He was tasked with assisting his academic advisor, renowned space policy expert John Logsdon, while he served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

“It was the first time that this kind of accident investigation report devoted resources to understanding the history behind why it happened, and not just the technical and physical conditions of the accident,” says Krezel. “It was an interesting use of my skills and appreciation of history.”

Krezel has continued to draw on his humanities training throughout his career at NASA, where he is currently integration manager for Exploration Systems Development within the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate. His daily activities include coordinating, scheduling, and monitoring the performance of flight hardware development; managing external relations; and addressing policy issues that are crucial to keeping his division running effectively.

“I take a large volume of data and integrate it into a sensitive package, and that requires skills they teach in history: lots of writing, lots of reading, lots of analyzing,” he says.

Just as important, Krezel says, is how his humanities background helps him to think more philosophically about the achievements of space travel.

“Getting where I am today is in no small part thanks to how humanities degrees teach you to think. I hope students now can appreciate that.”
Jonathan Krezel ’96 (CLAS), ’01 MPA

“We’re working on landing people on Mars, expanding from a single to a multiple-planet species,” he says. “Asking questions like, ‘What have we learned about past migrations, or when people came in contact with virgin territory?’ That’s where having a history degree helps.”

A Personal Journey

Krezel’s career at NASA is the fulfillment of a long-held fascination with space travel. He recalls two events in his childhood that sparked his interests: Receiving The Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual one year as a Christmas present and tuning into “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” the groundbreaking television miniseries hosted by Carl Sagan, when it aired in 1980.

“Sagan had a very poetic way of explaining why space exploration was important,” Krezel says, adding that he named his son after the famous astronomer.

As he got older, Krezel also became interested in aircraft hardware and design. When he arrived at UConn, he enrolled in the University’s mechanical engineering program, hoping to pursue a career in the aerospace industry. But he soon discovered that engineering was not a natural fit with his academic interests.

Unfazed, Krezel decided to approach his dream industry from a different perspective. He took courses in history and political science, gravitating toward subjects like military history, modern European history, and international relations. His senior year, he parlayed these interests into an internship at the Bureau of Regional Nonproliferation in the U.S. State Department.

“I came into college with something that I was passionate about, but the world doesn’t always let you do what you love,” he says. “So I used to say, ‘If I can’t design or build aircraft, then maybe I can create the policies or supply the funding to build them.”

A Noble Endeavor

Krezel shared his undergraduate journey at an alumni career panel for history majors during Huskies Forever Weekend in October of 2016. There he outlined the professional benefits of his undergraduate major and noted the importance of applied experiences and graduate education, which for him included a Master of Public Affairs from UConn’s Department of Public Policy and a Master of Philosophy from GWU. These programs, he says, provided specialized skills that, paired with his humanities training, gave him a competitive advantage in his desired field.

panel discussion

Krezel-2-web: Krezel, right, speaks on a career panel for history majors during Huskies Forever Weekend on October 21, 2017. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

“Getting where I am today is in no small part thanks to how humanities degrees teach you to think. I hope students now can appreciate that,” he says.

Krezel notes that he is one of several UConn alumni who have been employed by NASA over the years, a majority of whom earned undergraduate degrees in STEM fields. They include Richard Mastracchio ’82 (ENG), who in 2014 delivered the School of Engineering’s commencement address from the International Space Station; and Franklin Chang-Díaz ’73 (ENG), the first Hispanic American in space.

But Krezel emphasizes that humanities and STEM majors alike play crucial roles in space exploration, which he describes as humanity’s most complex undertaking.

“Space travel is hard. The rocket has to work and the ground systems have to work. We have to know where we’re going, so we need mathematicians and astronomers. We need to describe what’s going on, so we need writers, artists, and even poets. We need a crew to fly the rocket, and so we need doctors to do longitudinal studies of astronaut health,” he explains. “I don’t think there’s another endeavor that integrates so many different fields, and we do it for a very noble reason: to understand our place in the universe.”

By: Bri Diaz, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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