The business of space has room for people who have talent and passion — even if they aren’t engineers.
The space business is growing fast, and this area is full of companies creating the next steps in spaceflight. They need people, and despite what you may think, you don’t have to be an engineer to make a career in the industry.
And while you do need the right stuff, you don’t necessarily need to bewilling to ride beyond the atmosphere atop an explosive device.
“Make sure you know your ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ folklore,” Caitlin O’Keefe suggests, because your boss will. O’Keefe, a Seattle native, is director of marketing and communications for Redmond-based Planetary Resources, which is in the asteroid-mining business. She participated in NewSpace 16, a conference that brought together tech companies, entrepreneurs and investors for three days in Seattle.
It was a gathering of folks who love science fact and science fiction, from NASA to “Star Trek.” I love that stuff, too, but these folks are actively engaged in the science part. They’re people who are saying, “Make it so.” (Come on, you know Capt. Picard).
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The panel O’Keefe moderated Tuesday was called, “Not Rocket Science: Your Career in Space.” Most of the advice the panelists drew from their experiences could apply to almost any career, which is often the case with sound advice.
The idea of passion, of caring about the work, kept coming up.
Erika Wagner, business-development manager at Blue Origin, said her company asks job applicants three key questions: Are you excellent at what you do? Do you love space? What’s the last thing you built, or blew up?
“We love people who make” whatever they create, she said.
Blue Origin, the Kent-based company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, builds rockets and expects to send test pilots up in a spaceship in 2017.
Ray Ramadorai, who’s responsible for avionics, power and communications systems at Planetary Resources, said the best hires they’ve made are people who want to do something specific. Their passion sustains them through the hard work involved in a challenging enterprise.
Even with passion, getting where you want to be can be difficult. Chris Boshuizen said that when he was a kid in Sydney, Australia, he was inspired by the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Boshuizen is entrepreneur-in-residence at Data Collective VC, which has offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto, Calif. and invests in companies where big data is central.
There was no space industry in Australia, so he decided to become an astronaut and maybe get a chance to fly in an American spaceship. At 17, he tried to become a pilot but failed the required colorblindness test. “I said, ‘I’m going to build my own rocket.’”
He was both passionate and persistent, but even that didn’t guarantee a smooth path to his goal. He said he spent a few years trying to figure out what he should do, and went to graduate school partly to give himself time to figure out his future.
He kept going to conferences and meeting people, and eventually those connections got him a contracting job with NASA.
Wagner, who became an engineer, said that two summers of internships left her feeling beaten down. But she was re-energized by the excitement in 2004 when an effort financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen won the Ansari X Prize. The prize was for the first nongovernmental company to send a spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.
Wagner doesn’t work as an engineer — she has degrees in biomedical engineering, aeronautics and astronautics and bioastronautics — but she is still in the space business.
Another panelist, Don Weidner, shares that passion, which he exercises by supporting the work of people who do the science and business of space.
“In 2004, I was working in a bank,” he said. “I saw what was going on with the X Prize and I said, ‘I’m in the wrong business.’”
His solution was to make a lot of money and get involved on the investment end of things. Weidner owns Formidable Ventures, headquartered in his hometown of Seattle, and invests in ventures in which technology is central. When O’Keefe asked panelists, “What toys do you have in your garage,” he had a quick answer.
“I collect ‘Star Wars’ figures.” He has so many that, “I’ve added a room and knocked out walls” to house them. “I could talk all day, but this isn’t Comic-Con,” he said before talking about his collection from the movies “Alien” and “Aliens,” including the actual flamethrower Sigourney Weaver used in “Alien.”
That passion thing is powerful — strong enough to steer people toward the stars.