Give honest feedback. It is important to recognize effort and quality craftsmanship. It is equally important to give constructive feedback. Especially if the quality of the work, or ethics, is in question. How can one learn and grow with only pats on the back? It is important to learn how to deal with confrontation, communication, and taking ownership for one’s workmanship and actions. These are a “soft skill” that are important to learn in any field, especially in a technical field where mistakes can make all the difference. Engineering integrity and rigor are essential in the Space Domain. There are no do-overs.
As a part of my series about “Women Leading The Space Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewingGenah M. Burditt, a graduate of UC Santa Barbara in Aquatic Biology, is a lifelong educator and scientist, turned entrepreneur. After many years contributing to the nonprofit community (Natural Resource Conservation Service, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, US Forest Service) as an educator and program manager; and, co-founding a business in a small mountain community, Burditt returned to the Colorado Front Range and commenced a new pursuit, one that capitalized on these experiences, and which would create a family legacy.
In 2013 Burditt joined her father, Gerry Murphy, an aerospace veteran, to take EyasSat Desktop Satellite Simulators to the next level, developing new product lines and a global customer base. These simulators, think drone spacecraft, are one of a kind in the world. They are used for education/professional development commercially, in academia, and for government entities. Burditt and her team assemble these units in EyasSat’s lab on the Metro State University of Denver’s campus. In addition to managing assembly, integration, testing, sales and customer training, Burditt also manages and contributes to R & D for new generations, products, and test beds.
After spending several years getting to know the local and global aerospace communities, Burditt, began to observe a fissure in the industry between independent, highly skilled and specialized engineers and the customers who need their skill sets. A fissure that no existing organization seemed to be closing.
Burditt launched her company, Blue Foot Engineering, with a goal to advocate for small aerospace companies and vetted specialists while creating the richest network of talent in the industry and making it visible and accessible to the end customer. In addition to her work today with both Blue Foot Engineering and EyasSat, Genah is also on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Space Business Roundtable and is an active player in the State’s Aerospace Alley campaign.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Iowa City, Iowa until I was 14. It was a pretty bucolic upbringing. Literally, I had to walk through a corn field and cross a” crick” to get to school. I was relatively sheltered from any of life’s harsh realities. Although, exposed to more diversity of experiences than you might think, being in a University town that attracted a good deal of international students and scholars. My father was a physicist and astronomer at the University of Iowa. My mother, an RN at the University of Iowa Hospital. I met my best friend (next door neighbor) at age 4, and we’re still best friends, 40+ years later. When I was a pre-teen my mother went back to school to become an attorney. When she graduated, she was offered a job in Los Angeles. At age 14, the family relocated. It was quite an eye-opening experience. There I became enamored with the ocean, which ultimately led to my choice to attend University of California Santa Barbara to study Aquatic Biology. I graduated with a BS in 1996 in Aquatic Biology & Ecololy.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I read the Celestine Prophecy the summer after receiving my Bachelor’s Degree. The book was wildly popular at the time (in hindsight it was pretty cheesy). Following some guidance in the book about which path to choose in life, and a gut instinct, I made a sudden change in course, and elected to ignore my degree, ignore my commitment to move to the beach, and decided to move to Tahoe to snowboard and “find my path.” There I found my way to my future career in environmental education. I also met the man who would become the father of my children. I’d say the gut instinct paid off. I enjoyed many successful years in education, before making another big change in course, to space, and I now have 3 amazing children-a 15-year-old son, and twin, 11-year-old daughters.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”-Anonymous
I tend to overthink, overanalyze, try to plan for every possibility. This quote reminds me to slow down, take things as they come and prepare myself for the inevitable unknowns by simply keeping myself, and those I love, well.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.
I was inspired by my father. I came to space later in life (I was originally in natural sciences and education). He purchased a small company in 2009 as father-daughter project, EyasSat, which builds spacecraft simulators for education/training and professional development.
What started out as a hobby, though, became a full-time job for me. I am now majority partner and COO for EyasSat, where business is thriving today. Once I became engaged with the aerospace community, I was smitten. The caliber of each interaction, whether at a networking event or in a conference room with a white board during a design review, is second to none. And the people in the industry inspire me every day. Eventually, I started my own engineering consulting company, Blue Foot Engineering, with a partner. We developed Blue Foot to advocate for independent contractors, small businesses, and those in the “New Space” industries in Colorado.
Colorado’s aerospace community, known nationally as ‘Aerospace Alley,’ is particularly rich with space professionals, thanks to a robust technology community, the State’s significant Department of Defense workforce, and the multitude of aerospace-focused University programs offered across the State. Many young, talented graduates and former members of the Air Force start their own small businesses here. It is my personal agenda, and our joint agenda at Blue Foot Engineering, to see these smaller, idea-based businesses succeed in the global, rapidly changing space paradigm, and particularly, in Colorado.
All of this may have been pre-destined. Starting with my name: Genah. The spelling comes from a star that is directly overhead during the late summer/early fall when I was born. When I was in elementary school my father brought Sally Ride to our house for a BBQ. How many people have astronauts for dinner?!. I even had a space shuttle lunch pail and regularly wore NASA t-shirts, not all that common in the Midwest in the 1980’s.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
A spherical, fully 3 degrees of freedom, air bearing test bed for performing attitude control maneuvers. That is what the Air Force Academy asked us to engineer. Attitude control maneuvers are pointing, maneuvers. Spacecraft need to point for all manner of reasons, point solar array to the sun, point camera to spot on the ground, point an antenna. And, while may seem like a straightforward engineering task, it turns out is a near unachievable feat. Many have tried, and failed. Current test beds available include a sphere to which the spacecraft is mounted on the outside, a counter weight/boom on the opposite side. Air “floats” the sphere and an operator can demonstrate attitude control in every axis, but, is constrained by the outside mounted pieces once they reach the plane of the test bed. Other options include a floated hemisphere in which the spacecraft is placed inside. Again, all 3 axes can be demonstrated, but obviously, the spacecraft cannot be turned, or flipped, all the way around or it will fall out of the test bed. The challenges to the fully 3DoF design are thus: if the spacecraft is placed inside a sphere, eliminating the limitation of the test plane, then the material the sphere is made of needs to be optically clear so the spacecraft can be operated by radio (not with an umbilical). The material needs to be rigid enough to not warp when the mass/spacecraft is placed inside of it. Additionally, the system needs to be able to be balanced, once the spacecraft is placed inside. This means that the 2 halves of the sphere themselves, need to be uniform, the center of mass of the spacecraft needs to be “dead nuts” in the middle of the spacecraft and/or easily changed. The halves need to be easy to put together and take apart between tests. And, the moments of inertia of the spacecraft and sphere, the whole system, need to be considered, otherwise the aberrant MOI’s will take over and the system will find its “sweet spot” and no amount of torque created by the spacecraft’s actuators, torquer rods (magnets) and reaction wheels, will be able to over come the system. All of that and the outside of the sphere needs to be near perfectly smooth, such that the sphere will float in it’s bowl of compressed air with no friction.
Despite all of these engineering “tall poles,” EyasSat was able to create just such a system through a CRADA (Cooperative Research and Development Agreement-funded by government, R&D performed by civilian company) with USAFA. While there may be a good deal of competition and/or “cooptetition” in Space, engineers know a break-through when they see one, and they celebrate it. The day we demonstrated this system for the first time, may be the first time I realized two things, a) sometimes, often, even the best and the brightest engineers, coming together, cannot make things work, and b) the day they do, it is a victory for everyone, even by those who have tried and failed. Science and engineering at their best, working for the common, greater good. What a thrill!
At EyasSat we are still refining the processes of managing center of mass and the MOI’s of the system; and, manufacturing for commercial viability. These challenges equal the original engineering obstacles. But, we are undeterred. As a former educator, I am determined to offer this product at a price point that is acceptable to academia. The day I do that, will be another day to celebrate. Access for all.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Not coming from an Aerospace Education, I made a lot of technical errors in the beginning. I had a serious case of imposter syndrome. I felt like I would be “found out.” But two things happened.
First, I watched, and listened, and I learned. And then, I came to realize the Space Industry needs people with all manner of skills. There is a place for anyone looking to be a part of this exciting industry.
And it didn’t hurt that I learned a few good science, math, or engineering jokes; with those on hand, you can get street ‘cred’ right away. Yeah, I said good engineering joke-all things are relative!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I would not be where I am today without my father. His encouragement, support, and reputation within the industry were, and continue to be a invaluable to my success. Noteworthy, is that for the first few years we didn’t tell anyone that he was my father. I didn’t want anyone to think that nepotism was the sole reason for my success. With hard work and his support, I have carved/crafted my own, independent reputation since those early days. I had always thought I had appreciated the extent to which his support and encouragement helped me to be successful. But it was not until recently, when he had to step back following a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, that I truly comprehended how significant his contributions have been.
Additionally, my career and motivation have been boosted and bolstered along the way via interactions with women of influence in our industry. In example, USAFA, Four-Star General Ellen Pawlikowski; President and COO of SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell; Dr. Sian Proctor, activist and aspiring, and analog, astronaut for NASA; and Dr. Saralyn Mark, physician and NASA policy advisor. All of these women represent immense accomplishments and enormous humility.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am particularly excited to be participating in two important advocacy groups in Colorado right now. I have been a member of The Colorado Space Business Roundtable (https://www.coloradosbr.org/) for many years now. And recently I joined the Board. This organization promotes the Space Industry in Colorado, makes connections, and supports established and entrepreneurial space. It is the perfect place to implement my objectives for supporting and advocating for small and new space.
I am also quite proud of my participation in the Aerospace Alley initiative, working to make Colorado nationally renowned for its rich aerospace resources in infrastructure, technology, and human resources. As part of that initiative, I have joined the advisory board for creating an Aerospace & Aviation Pathway for Colorado students. Preparing Colorado students for careers in Aerospace and Aviation. As a long-time STEM mentor, this also suits my desire to provide access to science careers for all people.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The space industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?
I am most excited to observe my interns from Metropolitan State University in Denver and the young engineers at the Colorado Space Symposium and Rocky Mountain Chapter of AIAA (and so many more), where I find such a wealth of diversity. Space is no longer for older, white males. It is for everyone!
I enjoy the engineering challenges coming from New Space and the non-traditional thinking and approaches leading to revolutionary ideas and game changing technologies. I personally get to interact with many space startups, through Blue Foot, and there are new, exciting challenges every day. Sometimes, ideas don’t work out. But it is exhilarating to try. And this new environment is re-energizing innovation at NASA, which had become pretty conservative since the Apollo program ended.
We are experiencing some extremely difficult times as a result of COVID-19, and the New Space Race is a uniting enterprise. We can all be excited about watching the American-based, manned vehicle program be successful in the years ahead! And, as the industry unites around solving the technological challenges of getting back to the moon, and beyond, it continues adding jobs, even while other sectors are struggling.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
Maybe it is my history in ecology coming into play, but Orbital Debris is the number one thing that keeps me up at night. Perhaps that is melodramatic, but nonetheless, it is a huge problem. There are few regulations and/or plans for dealing with it, and the commercialization of space has led to thousands of spacecrafts clogging up the night sky. It is a danger to the space assets we already have, and it is a danger for future research and commercialization as well. There are technologies that can address orbital debris, but they need to be prioritized and the issue needs to be regulated internationally.
Funding (government) stability is also worrisome to me, especially for research and development and especially for advancing technology readiness levels (TRL) past 5, 6, 7. For self-funded, billionaires like Jeff Bezos, this is not a concern, but it is a barrier for other, smaller (and maybe more agile) companies to succeed.
With so many players in Space now, ethics and regulation also become a real concern. Not just because of apprehension about individual countries abiding by treaties and international regulations, but there is also anxiety about war on our space assets. We have even had problems with this domestically. A couple of years ago a US company launched aboard an Indian launch vehicle, bypassing the FCC licensing process. I am concerned regulation enforcement, in our burgeoning industry, could become a free-for-all.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I am satisfied with the STEM trends as they are heading today. There is still a long way to go, though. As I have mentioned, seeing the diversity in the students coming out of universities, and among the young engineers and other space professionals at conferences, in my interactions with women of influence, I am encouraged and inspired.
To be clear, though, there is not equality yet in either representation or compensation. I don’t have any quantitative data, but I do have qualitative feedback from female colleagues who are still belittled, sidelined, and even called names for their technological opinions, and paid less for the same jobs.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
The biggest challenge is the same as it always has been — women, particularly women of color, need to see themselves represented in the industry, in order to be inspired to try, and then to stay the course. There are financial barriers as well, that I believe, disproportionately affect women. Much of the industry is looking to hire people with four-year (minimum) degrees, and that is not realistic for many people.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?
First of all, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist, astronaut, or even an engineer to work in aerospace. I am a perfect example of this! Space needs every discipline in order to succeed. Suppliers, components manufacturers, machinists, quality assurance experts, certified technicians, business development crackerjacks, program managers, administrators, marketing professionals, and government liaisons. These roles are all essential to the success of the Space Industry and lend themselves to all sorts of personal skillsets, interests, and, of course, gender identities.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Walk the talk. This is true for any successful leader or manager, regardless of discipline or industry. Do not ask anyone to do something you would not do yourself. I learned this lesson as a restaurant/bar manager at Heavenly Ski Resort in the 1990s. When I jumped behind the line and helped the cooks during rush periods, I earned their respect and friendship. I maintain that philosophy and managerial style to this day.
- Care about your team. When you empathize with people you gain their loyalty and commitment. When I give my student interns time to tend to their studies, I earn their good will and hard work when our company is up against a deadline.
- Give honest feedback. It is important to recognize effort and quality craftsmanship. It is equally important to give constructive feedback. Especially if the quality of the work, or ethics, is in question. How can one learn and grow with only pats on the back? It is important to learn how to deal with confrontation, communication, and taking ownership for one’s workmanship and actions. These are a “soft skill” that are important to learn in any field, especially in a technical field where mistakes can make all the difference. Engineering integrity and rigor are essential in the Space Domain. There are no do-overs.
- Make time for continuing education. If you want to continue to lead in your field, impress and draw respect from your peers and team, you need to stay on top of your game. Technology is always changing, old tech becomes obsolete, and Avant Garde technologies come online every day. Professional development is a must.
- The scientific method can be applied to any situation. Whether verifying a hypothesis, diagnosing or troubleshooting a design or hardware that is not performing, or solving an interpersonal conflict, the method is useful. Break down any challenge or problem into what can change, and if it does, what will be the impact on the entire system or process. Only change one factor, or component, per iteration.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The pursuit of equality and opportunity for all genders, races, religions, cultures, and economic station, drives me. Inspiration cannot reach fruition without the support and funding to stay the course to achieve your dreams. Space is a domain that probably seems out of reach to the average person, as becoming a brain surgeon is a lofty goal for most but it should not be. It may seem too aspirational. It is not. It is a possibility for anyone. Again, I am a perfect example of that- a female biologist who decided to make a change, had a lot of self-doubt, but has achieved success beyond her wildest dreams.