#ElliottProud: Cody Knipfer

Cody Knipfer works in the government affairs office of a commercial space company, where he is the liaison with Congress for the organization. He graduated from McDaniel College in 2015 with a BA in political science, and with a MA in International Science and Technology Policy from the Space Policy Institute at the Elliott School in 2018. Prior to his current role, he held space policy positions with two aerospace-focused trade associations – the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and the Aerospace Industries Association – and spent time working in the House of Representatives, handling a defense portfolio. His most significant contribution to rocket engineering was assembling the LEGO Saturn V.

When did you realize you wanted an international career?

I have a career in outer space policy – out of this world stuff! Astronauts, astronomy, rockets – all things outer space – have always been a fascination for me, but I realized early into my education that the social sciences come more naturally for me than engineering or math. Becoming a rocket scientist was probably out of the picture, but I still wanted to pursue this passion and contribute to our exploration of space. So, in sophomore year of college, I applied for and was accepted into an internship with NASA’s History Office – the folks who maintain the agency’s records and write the stories of its past triumphs.

I spent that summer learning all the ins-and-outs of NASA’s past programs and our history in spaceflight. What became quickly apparent to me from those stories is that space exploration is not just brilliant engineers and scientists – its also political, diplomatic, and very much international. The “Space Race” of the 1960s was an international competition between the Soviets and the USA; the “Apollo-Soyuz Test Project” in 1975 was a deliberate marker of détente. The International Space Station is arguably one of the most significant diplomatic projects of recent history. And today, many countries from across the world are pursuing more and more robust space programs and seeking opportunities for collaboration.

It was then that I realized that I did not need to be a talented engineer to leave a mark on our exciting journey in space. A career working to enable and facilitate international dialogue and cooperation between spacefaring countries and people across the world would be just as meaningful. And here I am!

Describe your current position and what are your favorite aspects of the job?

I currently work in the government affairs office of a major commercial space company. I’m responsible for my company’s interactions with the U.S. Congress and state governments across the country. I communicate our positions on certain policies with Congressional staff and Members, and advocate for policies, programs, or funding that would help my company contribute more meaningfully to our country’s exploration and use of space.

What I love so much about my job is that its very relationship driven. A lot of my work is having conversations with people, to help them understand our perspective or position. It’s exciting to be an ambassador for something, especially when it’s something you feel strongly about and believe in. I’m an unashamed space nerd, so its doubly rewarding to spend all my working days talking about and dealing with my favorite subject.

Like many other jobs, its also really rewarding to see, at the end of the day, the programs and policies that I helped advocate for become signed into law and made reality. Even if those programs are small parts of the huge effort that is our space program, it’s meaningful to me to know we’re helping move the needle forward.

What are the current trends driving the future of your career field and what advice would you provide an Elliott School graduate student that is interested in your field of work?

Well, in general – government affairs work, like what I do, is not going away anytime soon. Organizations want representation with the government, and DC is absolutely the place to be for it. If that’s something you’re interested in doing, it’s important to explore as many opportunities in the policy-making world as possible. Internships with Congress or with the White House are tremendous ways to learn how “the sausage gets made,” so to speak, and to make the valuable connections you can/should leverage to land positions in the field. It is, as they say, a small town.

Outer space in particular is extraordinarily dynamic right now; that’s part of what makes it so exciting. It’s no longer just NASA that’s leading the charge in spaceflight. Today, you see tons of companies working on outer space projects, and a rich ecosystem of nonprofits that are helping shape and influence the space policy arena. That’s to say, there are now many more voices at the table – and all of them are hoping to be heard. There are opportunities abound to join one of their teams. If you are interested in working in the space sector, especially the space policy field, don’t be afraid to cast a wide net, talk to as many people as you can, and see what sticks. I’ve found the space community, especially in DC, is tight-nit, always willing to help, and eager for fresh new voices, perspectives, and opinions.

How does your current position compare to what you thought you would be doing when you first started your degree at the Elliott School?

To be honest, when I first started at the Elliott School, I didn’t quite know what I would be doing. I knew I wanted to work on outer space issues, and I knew I wanted to do policy. I didn’t quite know how to piece the two together. I am exceptionally fortunate that I found a position where I can do exactly that, in no small part due to the connections, the experience, and the education that the Elliott School provided me.

What I have found interesting is that a lot of my work is “in the weeds” of day-to-day policy issues. I thought, when I first started at the Elliott School, that a role like this would be helping directly shape the “big decisions” – sweeping questions of national strategy or funding, or the big picture on major programs. Quite the contrary, what I deal with is often quite narrow and focused. However, I’ve also learned that this is actually how the big decisions get made in our system – a lot of voices sitting at the table, offering their input on a lot of small priorities. When put together, all these perspectives constitute the direction we’re headed, and our agreement on a lot of small decisions together creates the “big” decision. That’s how governing a democracy works.

If you could travel anywhere in the cosmos, outside of Earth, where would you go and why?

Well, that’s the perfect question for me! I would love to go to Saturn’s moon, Titan – the only other world we know of that has liquid oceans on its surface. It’d be a bit cold (~ negative 290 degrees Fahrenheit), and probably wouldn’t smell great (its atmosphere, rain, and oceans are made of methane, instead of water here on Earth). But I think it’d be a nice getaway to enjoy a beautiful sunrise on a beach, on a totally different world millions of miles away. At least there probably wouldn’t be any annoying tourists.

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The #ElliottProud profile series is managed by the Elliott School Office of Graduate Admissions and highlights graduate program alumni to answer common questions posed by prospective, incoming, and current students. For more information on this series or to submit questions, e-mail the Office of Graduate Admissions at esiagrad@gwu.edu.

The views expressed by students profiled do not necessarily represent those of organizations they work for, are affiliated with, or the Elliott School of International Affairs.