A rocket enthusiast and marathon runner combines her strengths in physics and policy to pursue a public service career.
James F. Smith
April 28, 2023
As a child growing up in Atlanta with a passion for math and science, Megan Cordone MPP 2023 loved rockets. In high school, she joined the Southern Area Rocketry group, licensed to allow her to build and launch high-powered rockets. It wasn’t a passing interest. She went on to study the physics of nuclear weapons at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
And on the day she graduates from Harvard Kennedy School this May with a Master in Public Policy degree, she will be promoted to first lieutenant in the nascent U.S. Space Force. Cordone will train to become an intelligence specialist, focusing on issues as complex as satellite verification of nuclear weapons treaty obligations.
Don’t think of Cordone as a rocket science nerd. In April she ran her eighth marathon—and her third Boston Marathon, her favorite—finishing in 3 hours, 21 minutes. She also has run two ultra-marathons. It was her high school lacrosse coach, a retired Air Force pilot, who encouraged her to attend the Air Force Academy—and who presided at her commissioning as a Space Force second lieutenant when she graduated two years ago.
Cordone credits a series of mentors including for inspiring many of her steps along the way to the Space Force, both in science and public service, starting with her own parents. Her father, a network systems engineer for an Atlanta school system, and her mother, a dietitian who specializes in nutritional needs of people with chronic kidney concerns, supported her rocket hobby and her decision to go into the military.
“I went to the Air Force Academy because I could do science and engineering but also get to serve my country—and I could study physics and still relate to rockets,” she says. “There was this thread my whole life.”
In making career decisions, she says, “I oscillate between being idealistic, especially with treaties and all that, and then just being pragmatic: Where can I make my small impact?” At the academy, nearly all her research focused on nuclear treaty verification. One example: the U.S. National Data Center that verifies the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) asked if some physics students could help cut down errors in their algorithms, so Cordone jumped into that project.
That work got her thinking about the policy implications at stake. She spent an internship at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s Center for Global Security Research, where, she says, “I could step back from quantum mechanics and talk about what’s going on in the world with different treaties.” And while there, she started thinking about going straight on to Harvard Kennedy School after the Academy, a rare path at a graduate school where many entering students arrive with several years of work experience.
Among the people who drew her to HKS: the late Professor Ash Carter. Carter also combined expertise in nuclear physics with policy prowess, early on by devising ways to rein in the many nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, and later as U.S. Secretary of Defense. “He was a huge part of me looking at the Kennedy School and applying and coming here,” she says. “Someone who knew physics and policy and could do both things, and not in a lab; I definitely did not want to be in a lab.” Carter, who was the Belfer Professor of Science and Global Affairs and director of Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, passed away suddenly in October 2022.
Another example for her is HKS graduate and U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton MPA 2011 who was a U.S. Marine and also studied physics and policy. Cordone, who is a Black Family Fellow, met Moulton at an event this spring. “He and Ash Carter studied physics, they love science, they love learning, and they also love public service,” Cordone says. “It helps to have role models like that.”
At HKS, she found inspiration beyond science and math. She was a course assistant for Brian Mandell, the Mohamed Kamal Senior Lecturer in Negotiation and Public Policy, in his negotiations class. Equally eye-opening was her study with David King, a politics expert and senior lecturer in public policy at the School. “He really pushed me to think hard about what I really care about and just making sure your work aligns with the policy areas you are passionate about.”
She wrote her Policy Analysis Exercise with Matthew Bunn, the James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy, who is a longtime nuclear policy expert. Her subject: the intersection of journalism and satellite imagery and how satellite images can help document war crimes. “Professor Bunn was able to share his expertise on the value of satellite imagery from the nuclear realm since the 1990s and how that informed policy.”
Now she’ll take this learning to the Space Force, with its focus on protecting U.S. satellites and other assets in space “so that everyday life here on Earth can go on.”
She is excited to be part of a new service arm, launched only in 2019, where junior officers are “all really optimistic because we have the opportunity to shape the culture of the branch. We want to make it more innovative and future-forward, embracing technology.” Young Space Force officers have formed a grassroots group they call the Junior Guardians Forum to envision these opportunities.
Older military veterans at HKS have told Cordone that she will come to value her time here deeply. “They’re like: ‘You’re getting this context very early in your career that you will use as a lens to view all your military service,’” she says. “And I am just so grateful for that. I think all of that is going to really enhance my toolkit when I’m doing an operational job in the Space Force.”
Portraits by Natalie Montaner