Want to work on rockets? Advice from the new space workforce

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to work at a space startup

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

Relativity Space co-founder and CTO Jordan Noone, 26, on platform for a 3D printer known as Stargate 2.0 at the space startup's headquarters in Inglewood, Cali. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

Space startups from the Space Coast to the Pacific Coast are shaping the "new space" industry, revolutionizing how rockets are manufactured and reducing the cost of getting to science and telecommunication satellites to space.

Since the Apollo 11 moon landing, the space industry has transformed financially as well, with processional venture capital firms and angel investors funding new, bold ideas in spaceflight technology.

"You don’t have to come from an engineering background, you don’t have to have 10 years of space legacy in your resume or pedigree," said Monica Jan, Virgin Orbit's senior director of customer experience and strategy. "I would love to see space become more mainstream, and become more everyday. I think that’s a bit of a combination of time and capital."

News 6 toured several space startups in the greater Los Angeles area, including Virgin Orbit, meeting members of the new space workforce and learning what those who aspire to enter the spaceflight industry should know about this competitive and growing field.

Maurico Pena, Virgin Orbit senior director of safety and mission assurance, stands in front of a LauncherOne nose cone, or fairings, at the company's Long Beach, Cali. rocket factory. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

Maurico Pena, senior director of safety and mission assurance at Virgin Orbit, previously worked for Boeing for 21 years before joining Sir Richard Branson's space startup.

The company builds its LauncherOne rocket in Long Beach, California and is getting ready to start launching its small satellite rocket later this year.

Pena said Virgin Orbit is a combination of people, like him, with years of experience and some just starting out.

"We have a nice combination of people from alt space, if you will, that bring all of that experience from years and years of working in the field and the new space folks that are coming in and bringing all those good ideas and we’re there together with them," Pena said. "I think that's the best combination, because they learn from us and we can learn from them."

David Giger and an employee look at a 3D printed rocket part at Relativity Space in Inglewood, Cali. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

David Giger, a former SpaceX engineer, now the vice president of launch vehicle engineering at Relativity Space, said when he is searching for a candidate, he looks for raw talent, not necessarily someone with a space-engineering background.

Thinking outside of the norm is a Relativity staple as it is the only company producing a fully 3D printed rocket, the Terran 1, slated to begin launching from Cape Canaveral next year.

“I try to look less for very specific experience-based skills,” Giger said, from the company's Inglewood, California headquarters. “I'm a firm believer of taking smart people and giving them new, challenging problems and they'll adapt quickly.”

Giger said he sees himself an example of adapting skills for aerospace engineering. Prior to working on Dragon and Crew Dragon spacecraft at SpaceX, he wasn’t specializing on rockets but on air-breathing engines and he said he was able to adapt that to spacecraft.

People outside the traditional aerospace industry can kind of provide “a new insight into what makes sense for Relativity and what makes sense for the future of 3D manufacturing," according to Giger.

“I'm really looking for very smart, hungry engineers that want to tackle the hardest problems and we're looking for everyone from electrical engineering, software backgrounds, mechanical engineering backgrounds,” Giger said.

'Passionate about opening access to space'

Rocket Lab Electron 'It's Business Time' on the pad at LC-1. (Photo credit: Kieran Fanning)

A majority of Rocket Lab's Electron rocket is manufactured at its Huntington Beach, California headquarters, although Electron currently launches from New Zealand and soon NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia facility.

“What happens between our multi facilities around the world is a lot of the components get built here in Huntington Beach and they get shipped to New Zealand and that’s where final assembly takes place along with a large composite structure,” said Morgan Bailey, Rocket Lab communication director.

The company is stepping up its rocket production, with 28 satellite launches and counting, which means Rocket Lab is scaling up its employee count to meet the demand. As of June, at about 500 employees, Rocket Lab was hiring about five to 10 people every week, according to Bailey.

To meet its increasing launch cadence, Rocket Lab doesn’t just need engineers, Bailey explained, but a wide variety of talent.

“People who come to Rocket Lab should be absolutely passionate about opening access to space and within that, you can absolutely be passionate about that within your division of work,” she said. “So if you’re a finance team member, if you’re working on building a rocket, if you’re a propulsion engineer, if you’re looking at building a launch site, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re the absolute best of the best in your division, and you want to open access to space. Then we want to hear from you.”

Rocket Lab is also looking for a diverse group of candidates, Baileys said. The company offers a number of internship programs to encourage women and people from diverse backgrounds. Applications for the annual Rocket Lab scholarship open each year in October, which was founded in 2017 to encourage youth in the area surrounding Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand to pursue futures in science, technology, math and engineering.

Science fiction can meet reality

Eliana Fu, a material specialist at Relativity Space, specializes in 3D printing also known as additive manufacturing. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

Eliana Fu, Relativity Space senior raw material supply engineer, is part of the materials and processing team at the space startup and the first female engineer hired after company's founding in 2015. While growing up, Fu said, science fiction helped spark her interest in space exploration and continues to inspire her.

“I was actually a huge 'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek' fan when I was a kid and later on I also discovered 'BattleStar Galactica' and 'Babylon Five,' but nowadays I'm a big fan of the show called the 'Expanse,' which is all about human colonization on Mars and on the asteroid belt,” Fu said. “I think it's a very real, sort of visualization of what life will be like 50 to 100 years from now and we'll be living that kind of life.”

Fu volunteers with an organization called Women in 3D printing, which brings together women and young girls to help get them interested in 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, either as a hobby or a career.

The need for experts in additive manufacturing will continue to grow as new space companies are increasingly utilizing 3D printing technology.

Fu says that anyone who wants to get involved in 3D printing should pursue group projects in grade school and college, as well as check out available online courses.

Relativity Space co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Jordan Noone, 26, agrees hands-on experiences can help fuel someone's curiosity in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields.“Whether its online material introducing amateur rocketry and how to get into that or things like robotics programs and items in elementary schools like first robotics, that can really, definitely get students engaged at a really early level and giving them a head start to their education and the rest of their career,” Noone said.

Student STEM groups, mentors that inspire

Diana Alsindy, 25, is a propulsion development engineer at Virgin Orbit's facility in Long Beach, Calif. Alsindy was also previously a Brooke Owens Fellow with Virgin Orbit. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

Diana Alsindy, 25, works as a propulsion development engineer at Virgin Orbit.

While at the University of California San Diego, Alsindy said she was part of a group called Students for Exploration and Development of Space, also known as SEDS. The group, which has chapters as universities across the United States, gives students majoring in science and engineering fields hands-on experience.

“We build cube stats, and 3D printed engines -- which is very relevant to what I’m doing here -- at the university,” Alsindy said.

Alsindy said the real-work experiences she had with SEDs and during internships with NASA and Northrop Grumman helped her figure out what to expect once she graduated.

“I really love that feeling of urgency and that’s what makes Virgin Orbit special for young people. It’s very similar to how college is,” Alsindy said. "It’s fast and it’s efficient and you’re working with teams all the time.”  

The 25-year-old engineer is also among a growing group of women in STEM who have benefited from the Brooke Owens Fellowship. The fellowship was co-founded by Virgin Orbit Vice President for Special Projects Will Pomerantz, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Gravers and Chief Operating Officer of Earthrise Alliance Cassie Kloberdanz Lee to honor their friend Dawn Brooke Owens, a pilot and former White House space policy expert.

The organization pairs every “Brookie” with a mentor, a woman working in aerospace, and a paid internship at leading aerospace companies, including SpaceX, Ball Aerospace and Blue Origin among others.

“I was surrounded by women who are interested in the same thing, who are passionate and have hidden talents that were not able to be viewed in other internships or other applications for universities,” Alsindy said. “So I started in 2017 as a structures intern at Virgin Orbit and it was basically an open door for me to open my career and start my full-time job at Virgin Orbit.”

Alsindy will also pay it forward as former fellows later mentor next generation fellow recipients. Applications for the Brooke Owens Fellowship are due in November.

Alsindy, an Iraqi-American who came to the United States 11 years ago, is also known as the Arabian Stargazer on Instagram, where she uses social media to teach youth in the Middle East about rocketry, science, technology and math.

“Sadly, we don’t have science communicators and educators in the Middle East that speak Arabic and talk about how exciting science is,” Alsindy said.

Alsindy said anyone looking to pursue a career in aerospace shouldn’t let "No" be part of their vocabulary.

“You know what your capabilities are and just go do them, nothing is easy, there are a lot of risks that are going on," Alsindy said. "This job is not easy, it’s not safe but don’t be scared because many people are doing it. There’s help out there and there are mentors and teachers who are willing to make you successful.”

This story is part of ClickOrlando.com and News 6's Apollo 11 50th anniversary special. Visit ClickOrlando.com/space for more coverage.

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