Melanie Stricklan of Slingshot Aerospace: “Space has been democratized”

Space has been democratized: Over the past several years, the game has completely changed for those who want to explore space and be part of the space industry/ecosystem. Until recently, only large government agencies with billions of dollars at their disposal could afford to send satellites to space, explore outer space, or even observe and […]

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Space has been democratized: Over the past several years, the game has completely changed for those who want to explore space and be part of the space industry/ecosystem. Until recently, only large government agencies with billions of dollars at their disposal could afford to send satellites to space, explore outer space, or even observe and catalogue satellites and debris in our Earth’s orbits. That’s no longer the case.

As a part of my series about “Women Leading The Space Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewingMelanie Stricklan, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer for Slingshot Aerospace.

In 2016, Melanie combined her military experience and indomitable spirit to co-found Slingshot Aerospace, a leading company in situational awareness technology that is creating a platform that applies advanced analytics and machine learning to earth and space data, empowering customers with clarity in complex environments.Today, she is the company’s Chief Strategy Officer where she leads the strategic vision and growth strategy. Having proudly served in the United States Air Force for 21 years, Melanie possesses a unique blend of leadership and technical expertise that enables her to create and execute winning business and product strategies.

During her Air Force career, she logged over 1500 flight hours onboard ground surveillance aircraft, commanded experimental spacecraft missions, and led the development of space control technologies for the Department of Defense. Her personal decorations include the Air Medal, Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), Air Force Commendation Medal (four awards), Air Force Achievement Medal, and the John L. Levitow Award for outstanding leadership.

Melanie holds a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and a Master of Science in Space Operations Management with an emphasis in Space Systems Engineering from Webster University. She was named the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year for El Segundo, California, and named one of Inc. Magazines 2019 Top 100 Female Founders in the United States. Melanie was named a Techstars All Star Mentor, a recognition from her peers within the prestigious aerospace accelerator for her gold standard of mentorship. A trailblazer in the industry, Melanie frequently speaks at conferences about the value of situational intelligence and advancing space awareness, and hosted a TED Talk discussing how images from space help us protect earth. She is a champion for STEM initiatives, and enjoys inspiring youth to challenge themselves and pursue their dreams.

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 grew up in a small town in Texas and had grand dreams of doing something that would impact the world in a positive way. I was infatuated with space and aircraft as early as I can remember, and I was determined to be in the air one day — even though others told me it wasn’t possible.

While I was in grade school, a counselor told me two things I will never forget: I couldn’t attend the Air Force Academy because my eyesight wasn’t good enough, and I couldn’t become an astronaut because I wasn’t good enough at math. Yes, it was true math wasn’t my strongest subject; however, my parents taught me to never give up and emphasized the importance of being an individual who others could rely on to get the job done. They instilled in me how important it is to follow through on your commitments, and I was committed to making my dreams a reality. I voluntarily enrolled in summer school between my 8th and 9th grade years so I could get better at math and develop the skills that would make me successful in the aerospace industry. Fixing my eyesight wasn’t as easy, but I got creative and realized I could still join the Air Force and fly in planes — just not as a pilot.

In addition to a strong family support system, I grew up in a tight knit community. It’s true when they say it takes a village to raise a child. Our small community worked together and provided overwhelming support whenever it was needed. This hometown value instilled the importance of working together for the success of the group rather than the individual — a trait that was also instilled in me during my time in the U.S. Air Force.

Self-disciplined, hard work and organization are pillars to my success and I attribute much of that to my family who encouraged me to set goals, chase dreams and take (calculated) risks. Perhaps more importantly though, my family taught me the importance of faith, family, and good friends. This worldview made me appreciate the feeling of putting the needs of others ahead of my own, and to always be kind to everyone. This has played a major role in shaping our values at Slingshot Aerospace and my leadership style today.

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?

Fearless Leadership by Carey D. Lohrenz it’s really about confronting your fears and summoning courage in spite of those fears to chase your goals. It addresses how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and growing teams that are mission-driven to the core. I left a very good military career doing what I loved everyday to start Slingshot Aerospace — talk about summoning courage! I had to learn to embody these traits and still use them everyday.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“There can be no great accomplishment without risk” — Neil Armstrong

Again, perhaps the greatest risk I’ve ever taken was leaving the Air Force to begin a startup. In general, startups are all about taking calculated risks and it’s up to us to use our best judgement to determine if the risk is worth the reward. Oftentimes, we fall short of the goal, but failing forward is part of the process. Like my grandad used to say, “You can use those stones in the way of your path as stumbling blocks or stepping stones.”

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it. Other space related impactful things growing up:

Growing up in rural Texas, I was inspired by the night sky and looking up to see the Milky Way on a nightly basis. In 1986, I took a trip to McDonald’s Observatory and became infatuated with space and all its grandure. Haley’s Comet was flying that year and we could see it through the telescope. It was really cool to watch knowing it wouldn’t be visible for another 75 years.

With my new found love for space, I was naturally drawn to NASA’s shuttle program and Christa McAulliffe as the first teacher in space. I recorded everything about the Challenger mission leading up to the launch on our family VCR, and I watched in devastation as the Challenger exploded. It was my first experience with death and loss, and because I was so inspired, I really felt it. That loss taught me what it meant to put service above self and what it meant to be mission-driven. This moment in time led me to explore how I could become an astronaut in order to be a part of something bigger than myself.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

One of the most surreal experiences has been meeting my childhood and adult heros, and I often find myself sitting alongside them during panels and fireside chats. Perhaps the most interesting experience for me was celebrating the first images coming from New Horizons of Pluto. In 2006, New Horizons set off towards Pluto from Jupiter traveling nearly one million miles per day. It took nearly 9.5 years for New Horizons to reach Pluto, and I was fortunate enough to have a special invitation as one of a handful of guests to attend a viewing party at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. I was one of the first individuals to ever see images of Pluto.

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?

One funny story is when CEO and Co-Founder David Godwin and I were invited to the Whitehouse by the then space advisor to the president. As a scrappy startup, we decided to save a buck and stayed at Fort Meade. I was driving and in deep conversation with David when I took the wrong exit. We very quickly realized we were approaching the gate of National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters with no way to turn around. The gate police came out and immediately beckoned us towards the gate. I was still active duty and had been there before in a different capacity (luckily!), but that wasn’t enough to forego the standard deployment of the base police to completely surround the vehicle with their weapons. Keep in mind, David was in the passenger’s seat with his laptop open taking notes…in a secure base that focused on signals and intelligence. Needless to say, the NSA was less than thrilled about that! After checking our credentials we were released and told most people that make that mistake are held for questioning and don’t get out so quickly. The lesson here is don’t lose your situational awareness, ever!

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?

First and foremost, I have to recognize my family and all their support. My parents always supported me to chase my dreams and disregard naysayers, while my sister constantly encouraged my curiosity through our shared passion for space and exploration.

I also had two military mentors that have played a major role in my success. When I first entered the Air Force, my very first supervisor Robin Werner coached me on honing my potential. He always reminded me to look in the mirror everyday and tell myself what I like about myself.

Later another mentor from the Air Force, Mark Baird, taught me to always surround myself with people who are stronger than me in all areas of life. He told me that insecure leaders surround themselves with weak people, but secure leaders surround themselves with strong people. This is the mantra I live by and the same philosophy I use to grow our company. The stronger my team, the stronger we become. Their strengths lift me and our team, and together we can do more.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes we are building a space situational awareness platform called Slingshot Orbital. Slingshot Orbital is like air traffic control for space. The real-time space domain awareness solution aggregates information from commercial and government data sources and applies advanced analytics and machine learning to characterize space objects, detect threats, and enable confident decision making while identifying inconsistencies among sources.

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?

  1. Space has been democratized: Over the past several years, the game has completely changed for those who want to explore space and be part of the space industry/ecosystem. Until recently, only large government agencies with billions of dollars at their disposal could afford to send satellites to space, explore outer space, or even observe and catalogue satellites and debris in our Earth’s orbits. That’s no longer the case.
  2. There is room for all industries: Since space has become democratized, it has made it easy for all industries to leverage the benefits of space. Previously, only NASA had the ability to build and launch satellites. Today, any organization can explore and leverage the space domain and on-orbit sensors to optimize their business objectives or to make the world a more secure and sustainable place. For example, nonprofits can now help farmers in third world countries to identify water resources and increase crop growth with the help of satellites.
  3. Innovation: The possibilities are endless with the space frontier. There are so many creative ways we can leverage space and we have only scratched the surface. Startups and established corporations alike are exploring how we can leverage space to improve our way of life, support social responsibility and provide better services than ever before.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

  1. Democratization: While this is a benefit, it’s also a huge concern in terms of space sustainability. Space debris, or space junk, will continue to grow at an alarming rate as companies continue to launch objects. Without a proper space traffic management in place, this can inadvertently deem space non-functional for many many years to come. This is what our company is addressing with Slingshot Orbital.
  2. Unregulated territory: When I left the military, there were less than 1,800 operational satellites and thousands of pieces of debris in space. Over the next three years, experts estimate there will be more than 58,000 satellites in orbit. It’s likely only a portion of these objects will become operational spacecrafts, but even if only 10–50% of these constellations become operational, we could easily see an active spacecraft population in the next decade that is between 4–10 times larger than what is flying today. This is an exciting time for space, but it demands urgent regulatory action regarding space situational intelligence and space traffic management.
  3. A threat to our way of life: Most of the objects in space are in low earth orbit which is becoming increasingly congested. Large constellations will experience millions of close approaches, requiring thousands of avoidance maneuvers. Additionally, this unprecedented growth in the number of objects in orbit will change the statistics of the types of collisions, increasing the number of active-on-active spacecraft collisions to an all-time high. This means we increase the likelihood of collisions amongst objects which can seriously impact our way of life. Satellites enable our cell phones, livestream sporting events, GPS systems, ATM machines and much more. It’s imperative that we create an oversight system with global regulations that ensure data integrity as well as the ability to standardize and share information amongst stakeholders to incentivize safe space operations.

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 definitely think there is more work to be done in regards to the status quo of women in STEM. Fortunately, it is much easier today for women to enter STEM fields thanks to a focus on encouraging young girls and women to pursue their interests rather than focusing on outdated gender roles that were previously ingrained within society. However, it is still difficult to progress in your career once you’ve broken into the industry.

In order to change this, women have to be more comfortable advocating for themselves and the work they do, as well as being unapologetic in their ideas and questions. In general, women need a diverse group of advocates and coaches that continue to advocate and cultivate the skills and ideas that women bring to the table in order to excel in STEM industries.

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?

There is this idea that men are more capable or want to do this kind of work, and that thought process has instilled a sense of hesitancy for some women to even pursue a career in space. That alone is perhaps the biggest barrier for women in the space industry. Once a woman does pursue a career in space, it can be difficult to advocate for yourself since there is already an invisible layer of self doubt. This can be addressed by surrounding yourself with strong women and mentors who can coach you through positive self-talk. Thankfully, there are many notable female leaders who are blazing trails within the space industry which provide encouragement to those who are interested in pursuing a space career.

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?

One of the biggest myths about the space industry is that you have to be a genius to work in space. There is this expectation of perfection and that everyone within the field has a high pedigree. That just isn’t the case. There is room for you in this industry if you have passion for space. Additionally, you do not have to be an engineer in order to excel in this industry. There are a lot of non-technical roles being filled by people who aren’t traditionally trained experts, but have a passion for what they are doing.

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.)

There is no doubt that I have faced challenges in the male-dominated military and tech realms, but I’ve always believed that opinions would be formed based on merit and not my gender. Those challenges taught me many things on this journey.

  1. Continuously accept feedback, including the most critical while remembering to filter the naysayers: I believe there is always room for growth, and in order to grow, you have to learn how to accept constructive feedback and disregard destructive feedback. This is especially true if you are a startup. Customer, investor and mentor feedback is critical to all areas of our business, but you have to know which advice to embrace and which to accept with grace and set aside.
  2. Establish guidelines before every mission: As a startup, it’s easy to get off track. There are so many things to do — and each can be accomplished a thousand different ways — so it’s critical to establish your north star and respective boundaries so you can stay focused. This helps you reach business goals, while also providing enough structure for employees to work while not stifling their creative process.
  3. Build healthy relationships: Whether it’s your team members, investors or business mentors, it’s important to build strong relationships with the people you surround yourself with. Everyone has a unique viewpoint and experience and the best way to capitalize on their perspective is to have a strong foundation of trust where they feel comfortable sharing their ideas.
  4. Create a strong, genuine, authentic reputation: It’s important to understand who you are as a person and stay true to yourself. Strong values are the cornerstone of your identity which are then translated into your leadership style. At Slingshot Aerospace, we introduced six core values that we live by, both professionally and personally: Integrity, transparency, curiosity, family, stewardship, and trust.
  5. Position yourself as an expert: In order to gain credibility, especially as a startup, it’s important to position yourself as an expert. To do this, you have to commit yourself to becoming a continuous learner. Just because you’re an expert today, doesn’t mean you’ll be an expert tomorrow because of the continuous evolution of progress.

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. 🙂

I want the world to know more about and engage with space sustainability. Just as we need to focus on preserving our planet, we also need to take care of our space domain. Our way of life as we know it is dependent on those objects in orbit and the space systems flying within them. We have to protect that way of life for humanity to continue to progress.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to sit down with Melinda Gates. I absolutely love how she empowers women and girls to bring transformational improvements to the world through advancements in health and technologies. She inspires prosperity and health among us all!

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