A Lifetime Spent Studying the Stars, Searching for Answers
As a young girl watching the Apollo launches streak across her backyard sky in Key West, Fla, Yvonne Pendleton remembers telling her father, “Someday I’m going to work for NASA and study the stars.”
Her aspirations were prophetic. After more than a 30-year career with the space agency, Pendleton now directs NASA’s Lunar Science Institute (NLSI), an organization without walls where science teams across the country work together virtually. The NLSI Central staff she leads at NASA Ames Research Center is located in the Blumberg Center for Science Innovation, the first building ever built on Moffett Field. Recently named after Nobel Laureate and NLSI Distinguished Scientist, Baruch S. Blumberg, the renovated historic building symbolizes the merger of high tech communication tools with the fundamentals of basic research as more than 200 researchers across the world communicate through NLSI Central on a regular basis.
"It is so rewarding to see science progress as a result of bringing research teams together," said Pendleton of her role as NLSI director.
She started her career at Ames in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering and a dream of studying the stars. In the Space Science Division, she discovered and fell in love with infrared astronomy.
She earned a master’s degree at Stanford, and her Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, both through NASA fellowships, while working at Ames Research Center. Pendleton spent the next two decades studying the evolution and composition of organic material found in the interstellar medium in an effort to understand the role it plays in the origin of life. Her research has taken her to telescopes around the world and onboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. Asteroid 7165Pendleton is named in honor of her many research contributions, and she has published more than 80 papers in peer-reviewed journals. She is still an active scientist, although these days she credits her post-doctoral fellows with conducting most of the current research.
Pendleton’s advice today to aspiring astrophysicists? “Don’t let anyone talk you out of your passion.” She recalls when she was an undergraduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, people tried to talk her out of a career in aerospace because of high unemployment in the industry at that time. She’s thankful that she didn’t listen to detractors, because when she graduated, aerospace companies had resumed hiring. She was especially glad to see NASA centers at the Georgia Tech placement office, and that was how a ten-year-old’s dream came true. Jack Boyd, NASA Ames historian and ombudsman, made her an offer she would not refuse, and NASA Ames became her new home.
In 2005, she was promoted to chief of the Space Science and Astrobiology Division at Ames, where she led a scientific and technical staff of 160 people and found she could serve as an advocate for scientists and space science. The role gave her an opportunity to balance her fundamental understanding of space science with the numerous constraints managers often face, and she soon became a liaison between management and the scientists.
Two years later, Alan Stern, former associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, asked her to join his team at NASA headquarters. Pendleton served as a senior advisor for research and analysis programs for the directorate, which allowed her to understand problems from a senior management perspective. She dedicated herself to improving scientists’ productivity by expediting their funding and reducing unnecessary obstacles in their path. In 2008, she was invited to return to Ames to join the front office staff as the fourth in command under Ames Center Director Pete Worden, and served as the deputy associate center director of Ames until her appointment as director of the NASA Lunar science Institute in July 2010.
Pendleton met her planetary scientist husband of 15 years, Dale Cruikshank, at NASA Ames. “We fell in love in the Kuiper Belt,” she says, referring to Cruikshank’s Kuiper Belt research and hers with the interstellar dust sprinkled amid the Kuiper Belt objects. They formed a "Brady Bunch," of sorts, with his three boys and her two children. All are now grown and out of the house, but they always have a golden retriever at their side to keep the family circle complete until the children come back to visit.
In her spare time, she enjoys reading and writing mystery novels, scuba diving and training golden retrievers. Her most recent project is training a therapy dog to go into hospitals and schools. Yvonne and "Toby the Moon Dog" will bring comfort and joy to children while teaching them a little bit about the moon and NASA along the way.
"I have been given so many opportunities and am so grateful for this wonderful life," she says. "It is an honor and a privilege to give something back."
Ames Research Center