Claudia Pietrus ’23 found space fascinating from a young age – its vastness, unknowns and potential for exploration, maybe even as an astronaut.
“I always knew that if I couldn’t fly to space, I’d like to work on something that was able to go to space,” said Pietrus, a mechanical engineering major in Cornell Engineering.
That opportunity has arrived for Pietrus, who on May 26 made history as the first member of Cornell’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) Tri-Service Brigade to commission into the U.S. Space Force. She’ll soon report to Los Angeles Air Force Base to begin work as a developmental engineer.
Pietrus was one of 26 graduating students – 21 from Cornell, and five from neighboring colleges and universities – to receive commissions during a ceremony in the Alice Statler Auditorium, officially marking the start of their military careers.
Each ROTC cadet or midshipman took the oath of office – swearing to support and defend the constitution – before family members pinned gold rank bars on their uniforms and exchanged hugs and handshakes. The newly commissioned second lieutenants and ensigns then performed first salutes with enlisted advisers, each offering a silver dollar symbolic of gratitude and respect.
Chloe Cropper ’23, a graduating senior in the ILR School and the brigade’s outgoing commander, recalled her class arriving as “clueless freshmen” who needed older peers’ help to wear their uniforms properly. Now, she said, her classmates understood that their uniforms symbolize duty, honor and sacrifice, and were acutely aware of the new weight on their shoulders.
“In a world that seems to become more divided every day, let us never lose sight of the profound impact we can make through our commitment to serving others,” Cropper said. “Selfless service is all around us, and now it is our turn to pay it forward in the next steps of our journey.”
The ceremony’s guest of honor, retired Rear Adm. Margaret “Peg” Klein, a 35-year Navy veteran and dean of leadership and ethics at the Naval War College, encouraged the commissioned graduates to learn with curiosity, lead with humility and serve others with excellence.
“The world, and your service, need you,” Klein said. “They need you to use your education, what you have learned, so that you can lead and be the best possible … And I commend you for your willingness to serve, to wear the cloth of our country.”
Jiho Lee ’23, an agricultural sciences major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was sworn in as an Air Force second lieutenant by his twin sister, Chalsi Lee, days after he performed the first salute during her commissioning into the Army. Lee, of Auburn, Alabama, said he joined ROTC almost on a whim after seeing an Air Force banner in Barton Hall. Next he plans to earn a master’s degree in leadership and policy, then attend medical school.
“ROTC is a great leadership opportunity and a great way to jumpstart a career,” Lee said. “You take away an invaluable thing from this program that you can really extend to any career field.”
New Navy Ensign Natalia Urbas ’23, graduating from Cornell Engineering with a major in materials science and engineering, is eager to start her work as an engineer at Naval Reactors headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“I’m really excited to get out in the fleet and start doing the things we’ve been training to do,” said Urbas, of Berkeley, California. “I know within my class there is so much good that we can do for the Navy, and what counts is that we get out there and do it. Commissioning is a step on that road.”
The Space Force didn’t exist when Pietrus joined ROTC. Established in late 2019, the force serves as “guardians beyond the blue, the invisible front line,” according to its fight song, overseeing space-based capabilities critical to day-to-day military operations, including Global Positioning System, communications and missile-defense satellites.
"Every one of our 2023 ROTC commissions are joining an elite club of service members charged with defending our nation, and we are honored to welcome our first Space Force commission," said Lt. Col. Joshua Kirkum, professor of aerospace studies and commander of Air Force ROTC Detachment 520. "Focus on the space domain has become a national imperative due to the growing threat posed by competitors in space."
Pietrus’ mother, Iwona Pietrus, said she was overwhelmed seeing Claudia become a Space Force guardian. When she was 12, Claudia proposed the name Amelia – after aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart – for her baby sister, now 9, who helped Iwona pin on Claudia’s rank bars during the ceremony. But many children say they want to be astronauts, and Iwona Pietrus was surprised by her daughter’s career path.
“She’s just an incredible person,” Iwona said. “She wants to be her own individual.”
As a high schooler, Pietrus attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, and met an astronaut on a visit to Kennedy Space Center in Florida – experiences that solidified her career interest. At Cornell, she performed space-related lab research, including supporting a launch of cube satellites.
While lab research developed her academic skills, Pietrus said, ROTC helped her learn to be a team member and leader and to handle uncomfortable situations, building her confidence.
“I think what initially drew me to space was just how vast it is, and how little we know about it,” Pietrus said. “It feels like this unexplored territory, with so many possibilities.”
Members of the Class of 2023 receiving commissions were:
- Army: Sophia Bergen, Cornell Engineering; Adele Bradley, Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy; Harrison Brown, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS); Chloe Cropper, ILR School; Matthew Hoskins, CALS; Ji Jang, Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management (Dyson School), in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business (SC Johnson); Wyatt McDevitt, Dyson School in SC Johnson; Emily Michaels, Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration in SC Johnson; Matthew Palmer, Cornell Engineering; David Sommer, ILR School; Aron Zhao, Cornell Engineering.
- Navy: Colby Bellone, CALS; Liam Dixon, CALS; Susanna Gaither, Cornell Engineering; Michael Hinkley, Cornell Engineering; Jacob Schiller, College of Arts and Sciences; Anna Stevens, Cornell Engineering; Natalia Urbas, Cornell Engineering.
- Air Force: Koby Battema, Cornell Engineering; Jiho Lee, CALS.
- Space Force: Claudia Pietrus, Cornell Engineering.
Five other Tri-Service Brigade members receiving commissions were:
- Army: Adriane Casey, State University of New York at Cortland; Rhaelynn Gee, Elmira College; Igor Poliwoda, Binghamton University; Dane Richardson, Ithaca College.
- Air Force: Max Weiss, Binghamton University.