A profile of Jason Kendall, director of the Inwood Astronomy Project and NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador for New York City. Video by Sarah Fecht and Joseph Castro.
Looking up to look within
By Joseph Castro
When you walk through the forest of Inwood Hill Park at night, it’s easy to forget you’re in New York City. Rather than the scent of exhaust mingled with the aroma of fresh pizza, you smell the trees and the soil. Instead of the sounds of honking horns and talkative pedestrians, you hear a symphony of birds and insects. Most of all, in place of dazzling city lights, you see the twinkling stars above, making the park the premiere location for amateur astronomy in Manhattan.
And every Saturday night, you’re sure to find Jason Kendall there with his telescopes, waiting for curious passersby to join him in a stargazing adventure.
Kendall is the director of the Inwood Astronomy Project, based in the Inwood neighborhood on Manhattan’s northern tip. He founded the project three years ago to bring astronomy to the local community and anyone else interested. Kendall is well known around Inwood, and his Saturday night stargazing events draw anywhere from a few to a few hundred people, some traveling from other areas in the city or even from neighboring states.
“There’s a sense of security in knowing that he’ll always be there,” said Jordan Kushner of New York City’s Amateur Astronomy Association, of which Kendall is a board member. “[It] really makes a difference to people.”
A native of Mankato, Minnesota, Kendall, 42, got hooked on astronomy in fourth grade when he saw the rings of Saturn through a telescope for the first time. “It kind of sticks with you,” he explained. Following his passion, Kendall went on to earn bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and astronomy from Mankato State University and a master’s degree in astronomy from New Mexico State University.
With his Inwood project, Kendall hopes to give people — children especially — the same opportunities to see the universe that he had as a child. And he doesn’t really care whether or not the kids go on to become astronomers. “It’s just simply opening a wedge for them so that life can be bigger than they think it is,” he said.
Kendall’s public education efforts don’t stop with his own astronomy project. In 2008, he began volunteering with the American Museum of Natural History’s Explainer Program, talking with visitors about topics like the origins of the solar system. The following year, he started giving free astronomy lectures at the Inwood Public Library and the Inwood Hill Nature Center as the Solar System Ambassador for New York City. The ambassador program, sponsored by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, is made up of over 500 outreach volunteers across the country that describe NASA space missions to the public.
Kendall squeezes these outreach endeavors into a 70-hour workweek at Cantor Fitzgerald Investment Banking, where he has worked as a computing systems administrator since 2000.
“His dedication to public education is really something to be admired,” commented Cameron Hummels, a graduate student and co-director of astronomy outreach at Columbia University. “I think all NYC astronomers would agree that he’s been a boon to the community.”
With his computer-networking job and his degrees in math and astronomy, you might expect Kendall to be the nerdy, awkward type. So how is he so successful with his outreach and why is he so good with people?
The answer may lie with his acting degree. Following his astronomy education, Kendall felt the need to shift gears, so he got a master’s degree in theatre arts from the University of Texas, Austin. This naturally improved his communication skills. “I’m now in the casting pool of Cirque du Soleil,” he noted.
“He really is the Mozart of astronomy public outreach,” said Jordan Kushner, adding that Kendall has the knowledge of a professional astronomer, alongside impressive communication and leadership skills. Maya Kushner, an Amateur Astronomy Association member and Jordan’s wife, likens Kendall to the late Carl Sagan, who was able to make science approachable to the general public. “He gets super excited and that kind of passion rubs off,” she said.
It comes as no surprise, then, that his events bring in people from all walks of life. Kendall recalls one particular night in June of 2009 when he was looking at Jupiter outside the park. Three big men came by from across the road. “Huge guys. Literally gang members,” Kendall said. While Kendall himself may be short in stature, he more than makes up for it in personality. So he called the men over to see Jupiter through his telescope. “These guys came across and are like, ‘This is cool!’”
A few minutes later, a posh woman with an Afghan hound walked by; she stopped to see Jupiter, too. Then, a homeless man showed up. “Now, picture this,” said Kendall, chuckling. “At the intersection of Seaman and Isham Streets, there are three gang members, a wealthy woman with her Afghan hound and a homeless guy, all huddled around my telescope!”
As amusing as such experiences are, Kendall is more interested in attracting people whom he thinks need to experience astronomy firsthand. He believes that astronomy can give hope to those who have none, helping people see that there could be a brighter future for them.
Looking into his own future, Kendall is toying with the idea of getting a doctorate in astronomy, perhaps from a university in another state. Yet, he said, “I want to keep finding talks to give to my neighbors and I want to keep doing the stuff at the park.”
There are some people, both in Inwood and the greater New York City area, who hope Kendall will stick around with his telescopes for much longer. “Inwood is very lucky to have him,” said Maya Kushner, adding that astronomy education is vital to the community. The thing about astronomy, she explained, is that it allows people to put their lives into perspective.
“We look up to look within, we look up to see ourselves,” Kendall said. “It’s an expression of faith, it’s an expression of idealism. And it’s fun.”