Interviews Operators Satellite

Women in satellite: Advocating affordability

In an exclusive interview with Vijaya Cherian, Michaelyn Thomas, Head of Affordability at Virgin Orbit, discusses novel ways in which the company has attempted to make space affordable.
Michaelyn Thomas, Head of Affordability at Virgin Orbit.

What does Virgin Orbit do and as Head of Affordability, what does your role entail?

Virgin Orbit is on a mission to democratise and open space for everyone by providing affordable, dedicated, and responsive launch services for small satellite customers. From connecting rural communities to monitoring global climate change, our customers are using space to drive lasting positive change in order to make Earth a better place for all. With our LauncherOne system, we are able to widen access to space by providing agile launch services for all kinds of new small-satellite customers.

As the Head of Affordability, I am laser-focussed on the recurring cost of our LauncherOne programme. I partner cross-functionally across all teams to find innovative ways to lower the overall cost of the system. Also, because of the unique mobility of our system, we are discovering we have tremendous appeal from customers in other nations, many of whom want us to bring the launch system to their satellite, rather than the other way around. Because of this, I also serve as the project manager for spaceport site activation around the globe.

How have you made launch services affordable for small satellite customers?

At Virgin Orbit, our rocket launches are air-launched and focussed on catering to the small satellite community by accessing their intended orbit on their schedule. Essentially, we have a mobile launchpad which is a modified Boeing 747 aircraft named Cosmic Girl, and we’re combining that with our LauncherOne system, which leverages proven technology alongside state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques to maximise our agility and affordability. Because we have the capability to launch from anywhere in the world, our system brings greater flexibility and high value to our small satellite customers.

Within the same context, how has affordability propelled innovation and how has this helped countries around the world?

The affordable launch services Virgin Orbit provides will help nations that currently do not have launch capability. We can use existing infrastructure, like a commercial airport or military base, to outfit a spaceport. It’s really about utilising existing in-country resources and offering an affordable, rapid-response launch. With this air-launch service, Virgin Orbit eliminates the traditional costs of maintaining a ground launch facility, which allows the flexibility of launching from multiple places to reach different orbits.

In addition to our affordable, rapid response air-launch solution, the Virgin Orbit team has been 3D printing key parts of our rocket engines for some time.

Early on, we recognised 3D printing as a great enabler and an effective way to reduce schedule and lower costs. We have partnered with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), and our collaborative goal is to study the use of 3D printing to build multimetallic combustion chambers.

The benefit of developing multimetallic parts is that you can take advantage of their strength and conductivity to create a higher-performing end-product. We use our hybrid additive-subtractive manufacturing machine to help us accomplish this quicker. An extensive hot-fire test campaign proved that the combustion chamber we tested together with NASA MSFC could hold up under realistic operational conditions, and it matched the performance of a traditionally manufactured unit.

Do you have any numbers on what percentage of women work in the space industry now?

2019 research studies reveal that women make up 20% of the workforce at the employee level and women make up 16% of the senior leaders’ levels in aerospace and defense companies. The aerospace industry continues to see more women represented as compared to the past. However, women are still underrepresented at all levels including the most senior levels of leadership. Generally, the more women who hold top leadership positions within organisations will typically have a workforce made up of more women. Barriers to women inclusion and advancement are still prevalent and are related to the lack of representation, stereotyping, exclusion from professional and social networks, impossible work-life balance, and the list goes on. Until organisations can truly embrace inclusion and recognise top talent, the lack of women will continue to remain.

How have you helped influence more women to make career moves within this sector?

An aerial view of Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach manufacturing facility. Credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson.

Throughout my professional space career, I have participated in and have developed women empowerment business resource groups in efforts to create an inclusive environment for everyone. On International Women’s Day in 2018, I had the honour of delivering a keynote address to our workforce on the importance of women advancement in the aerospace industry. This talk was rooted in my doctoral research, which took me years to develop. I discussed barriers women tend to face in the aerospace industry and strategies that enable success.

After my presentation, a group of dedicated and inspirational employees kept the conversation going. Over the course of several months, we brainstormed many ways to get a company-recognised group going, and Teammates for Women Empowerment was formed with the amazing support of our CEO and senior leadership staff. I serve as the executive sponsor of this important group.

Teammates for Women Empowerment is an inclusive, employee-led group that promotes positive change through a shared vision of women empowerment in the workplace. It has a robust operating rhythm, managed by a small group of dedicated employees in efforts to promote professional growth and development, inclusion, and overall employee happiness for everyone. The group also aims to create a trusted environment for employees to practice and learn leadership skills, as well as share experiences, ideas, and strategies that enable career success and professional development in the aerospace industry. It’s about identifying and breaking down barriers through collaboration and education.

Further, I have been invited to speak around the United States and the world, including the Middle East and Europe, on women empowerment initiatives in the aerospace industry. Women empowerment objectives should be a shared vision for everyone looking to succeed in the space business.

I also volunteer with various organisations in the greater Los Angeles, California, area in efforts to encourage girls and women to pursue STEM education and careers.

What can women bring to space that is unique or perhaps different from men?

It’s more about introducing as much diversity as possible. Diversity drives innovation, and in an industry like space, it’s important to have people who think differently and approach problem-solving differently. Ultimately, a great balance of everyone is what’s needed in the space business.

What new trends do you see specifically within the space sector and how do you see women contributing there – and specifically, to which areas?

I started my space career in 2007 and today in 2020, so many new space companies have popped up. This means there are more space opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups. And through the use of social media with space companies highlighting their capabilities for all to see, it’s attracting a diverse population. Social media plays a new role because more companies are sharing their program milestones, highlighting their launches, engaging their customers, and generating excitement for new demographics. As the space landscape changes, it should begin with diversity and people, because great ideas come from different people, and diversity solves some of our toughest problems through healthy conflict and innovation.

Leadership, particularly at the executive management ranks, is a key area that women should continue to break into. As mentioned, diversity should be at the forefront of innovation and decision-making, and women can bring their experience, strategic vision, and technical acumen to the highest levels of leadership. Not only will women enhance an organisation’s ability to become an industry space leader, companies who promote women into high ranking positions demonstrate their commitment to advancing women’s careers.

Another important area would be space policy. Women can play a major role in shaping this new space landscape. Policy continues to evolve with this incredible space boom, and I believe that it’s driven by the cool ideas for technology and businesses we see today. It’s critical that a fresh perspective helps to shape policy and space access to reach as many nations and people as possible.

What would you consider to be your dream achievement?

Virgin Orbit is already doing it—democratising space for everyone through affordable launch products and services on a global scale for existing and new small satellite customers. To have contributed to this is a dream.

What is your vision for women within the space segment?

My vision for women in the space sector is to repair the talent and employment pipeline. Many have heard the term “leaky pipeline,” which is a metaphor to describe the lack of women and other underrepresented groups pursuing STEM education and careers. But in my opinion, the pipeline is not leaky, rather it is completely broken. As a woman leader in the space industry, I believe I have a fiduciary duty to mentor, sponsor, and purposefully seek out talented women to ensure they are invited to have a seat at the table. Most people feel comfortable around people who look like them, and for the few of us in leadership, it is important to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone.

They often say a mentor helps to guide us to where we are today. Do you have someone like that?

Yes, I most certainly have a mentor. I actually have several mentors for different things. Mentorship is the cornerstone to growing and expanding your career. Not only are mentors necessary, but sponsors are equally central to professional growth and development. A sponsor is very similar to a mentor, but a sponsor will advocate for you when it’s promotion time or if there is a particular new job you are interested in.

Additionally, I have what is called a reverse mentor. A reverse mentor is someone who has less professional experience than you. As an example, my reverse mentor coaches me on new tools to improve the efficiency of my job and they share their experience as an early career professional which allows me to understand how to fine-tune my leadership and to make it more inclusive.