“Space technology solves problems here on Earth and makes our lives better”
Space Foundation COO Shelli Brunswick talks to Michael Matias about career options in the spacetech exonomy
One of the things that has Shelli Brunswick, COO of the Space Foundation and executive leader of its Center for Innovation and Education, excited about the future of the space economy is that there are opportunities for everyone to get involved. People may have the idea that space work is only for astronauts or physicists, but she is on a mission to inform people about the many sectors that are part of the space economy. This includes inspiring school kids to consider space careers, helping adults get the skills they need to transition into the industry, and helping entrepreneurs get in the game. In an interview with 20MinuteLeaders creator Michal Matias she also reminds us that technology developed for space programs also improves life on Earth, like GPS, cell phones, and the teleconferencing we all have relied on during Covid-19.
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Shelli, briefly take me through your incredible experiences from the Air Force all the way to the Space Foundation.
My journey has had three chapters. That first chapter was right out of high school. I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and I was stationed in Europe. After being enlisted for 12 years, I became an Air Force officer. That started my second journey. That's when I transitioned into the aerospace and space industry at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. For my final assignment in the Air Force, I was stationed on Capitol Hill where I was a congressional budget and appropriations liaison, securing the budget and answering questions and helping everyone understand the importance of space to our future. My third chapter, where I am today, is working at the Space Foundation as the chief operating officer and executive leader for our Center for Innovation and Education.
Part of your role was also explaining the importance of space and how people can interact with such a weird subject. I think that for me and my friends, space is too obscure, it's too complicated out there. Talk to me a little bit about what space really is all about.
One misperception is the technology piece of it. Many people think about launch vehicles and satellites, and that is certainly a part of the space industry. But you're doing a lot of things that directly relate to space. Space is about the Internet of things, financial industry, agriculture, health care, pharmaceuticals, public safety, transportation, communications. There are 16 different technology sectors that relate to the space industry, and we're using them every day, like cell phones. Don't think about it like this is space and it's a black box. Think about it as, how can I take this capability, this infrastructure and how can I use it to unlock value, release innovation and technology to help better our lives on Earth.
Why are you so passionate about space? Why did you go this route?
I have a value system that was instilled from a very early age. We really work hard, we believe in doing what's right. Integrity first, service before self. Those are the same traits that the US Air Force has. I initially didn't think I'd stay almost 30 years. But I just loved what I was doing and I'm passionate about everything I do. Life is a journey and you want to be excited about what you're doing. Find passion in it. If you find passion, as they say, you'll never work a day in your life. I love what I do.
Where are we today in terms of either space exploration or space technology?
I'm sure you're very familiar with GPS. When people think about GPS, they think about how we get from one place to the other. But since 1983, GPS has unlocked $1.3 trillion of value to our economy. That's jobs. That's economic opportunity. Get excited about that because the other great part of GPS is that it was an investment by the US government. The other great thing is that the NASA (and also the European Space Agency) Technology Transfer Office has thousands of patents that are waiting for entrepreneurs to bring to market: water purification, growing food in austere conditions, communications, battery and storage technology. You can apply for one of their patents. They also have seed money to help you get started. Space technology solves problems here on Earth and makes our lives better.
Along your career, did you anticipate that you're going to become a spacewoman and such a strong advocate?
I would never have imagined this for myself. When I started over 30 years ago, the space industry was very different. It went from where you work for the government (directly or indirectly) to now you can be an entrepreneur and bring products to market yourself. We've seen this democratization. There's no way little Shelli Brunswick could have imagined this, but I'm excited and I look forward to the next thing.
What are the next steps in space exploration discovery, scientifically speaking? What can I get excited about for the next 10 years or so?
The space economy is currently $424 billion. That's projected to grow one to three trillion dollars by 2040. There are lots of opportunities. That growth is not just going to be in the launch vehicles and satellites. It's going to be here on Earth with data analytics, cyber, miniaturization of technology, advanced manufacturing, and health care. You're going to see this awesome explosion of space technology being used in our daily life on Earth. Telehealth, telecommunications, and teleconferencing are all technology that came from the space program and have made this year of Covid-19 even achievable.
Tell me a little bit about the Space Foundation and your work as a mentor.
One of the activities I lead at the Space Foundation is our Center for Innovation and Education. That is all about creative, inclusive, sustainable programs for workforce development and economic opportunity. We're looking at the entire workforce pipeline because we need everybody to look at space as a real opportunity. We do have a workforce development roadmap, which includes awareness and access. The third one is you do have to have the right training, whether that's a certificate in advanced manufacturing or cybersecurity or data analytics or a Ph.D. Then, you want to connect. Look for organizations where you can connect. The last step is look for a mentor and be a mentor. Because no matter where you are in your career, you can mentor someone else and you can always look to be mentored and coached as well so that we can ultimately reach our true actualization of service before self and helping to contribute to the greater good.
What is the biggest challenge that you foresee us having with space?
The biggest challenge I see that's immediately impacting us is really that workforce. We have a workforce shortage. Some of the workers we have in the US, they've never thought about being part of the space economy. We need to inspire them to look for opportunities to join the space economy. We have individuals that are looking for jobs, and we have jobs available in the space sector in all those different industries. But we have a mismatch of skills. We really have to work together to solve it. And we need entrepreneurs who want to take that risk and bring technology forward, not only to create a job for themselves but to create jobs for others and benefit humanity.
One of the things that I'm seeing here is this understanding we're educating the market in some sense, right? The space workforce needs this generation. But there is this misconception that we aren’t able to actually be part of this workforce.
We need to look at kids as young as possible. Especially girls and minorities who sometimes self-eliminate in middle school from thinking about going into technology or space. Then we also talk to various workforce centers around the country about the importance of space and how they can look at training programs to reskill the workforce. On average, the jobs in the space economy pay 40% above the median income here in the US. It's also about inspiring entrepreneurship. Everyone can have an opportunity to be an entrepreneur in the space economy. Whether that's food service, fleet maintenance, accounting, IT, all the way up to PhDs and mathematicians. There's an opportunity. There's a place for everyone. We have to be breaking down those barriers that prevent individuals from thinking about joining us in the space industry.
What are three words you would use to describe yourself?
It’s inspirational, innovative, and agile.
Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, while working as a software engineer at Hippo Insurance and as a Senior Associate at J-Ventures. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.
Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Amanda Katz