A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Joe Laurienti, CEO of Ursa Major Technologies, former Propulsion Engineer at SpaceX and Blue Origin.
The Space Talent Spotlight is our blog series focused on the leaders and builders at the intersection of space and tech.The Space Talent Spotlight is our blog series focused on the leaders and builders at the intersection of space and tech.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
A special part of this industry is that the largest milestones are the result of many minds and hands working together. The first time we ran Hadley was the first U.S.-made oxidizer-rich staged combustion engine hotfire, and the result of seven employees sharing an attic office and a singular drive. The hundreds of tests and tens of thousands of seconds that Hadley has run since then have been an effort to continually mature the technology, and we have since gotten to share the resultant milestones with hundreds of employees, customers, and partners around the country.
Similarly, the second demonstration flight of Dragon was a monument unlike any other. Years of shared conviction and countless late nights resulted in an industry shift and the first of several milestones (and likely more to come) that put SpaceX among only nation-states as peers.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
It took a few years to recognize, but the biggest was making an unconscious habit of seeking learning opportunities, particularly if it involved improving a skill aligned with personal areas of interest. As a student, working on research programs or extracurricular activities along your desired career path will build an experience war chest that is invaluable early in a career. In my case, I researched fluid mechanics, held several internships, and worked with a group of students at the USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory. Similarly, the early years of a career allow more flexibility than is often apparent, especially in an industry of long timelines like aerospace. One should seek to excel in their immediate domain, but if you have always wanted to learn more about an adjacent function such as hardware design or launch operations, chase that. Discuss opportunities with your manager to support other roles and be vocal about your desired career path.
The efforts I have been part of have often outpaced their resources, allowing for a ton of flexibility and learning in roles. We might suddenly have an engineering problem with no assigned owner and the opportunity to become an overnight responsible engineer or a fledgling subject matter expert. This pattern seems to be constant in today’s aerospace world and serves to grow employees at a historical pace.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
As alluded to above, the extracurricular learning opportunities during my undergraduate studies were foundational in shaping the way I work. I was very lucky to have fantastic research advisors, internships, and student mentors that were natural teachers; not only exciting me about the work at hand but demonstrating capable management skills and imparting further desire to grow. One of these mentors was a graduate student a few years ahead of me that was directly responsible for getting me to interview at SpaceX.
In addition to research, work study, internships, and hands-on extracurricular activities/student groups, there are many fantastic technical competitions, design projects, and self-guided hobbies that serve to develop students in ways that are complementary to classwork. These typically stand out on a resume and the experience advantage is easy to glean in an interview.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
Personnel changes are typically the most stress-inducing aspects of high growth companies. Whether you suddenly realize you only need 25% of the people around you after building an incredible team or having highly respected individuals move onto their next endeavor, these changes are tough. That said, aerospace is a (seemingly) small industry filled with great talent. Team growth and changes provide opportunities at the individual level as well as introduce dynamics that serve to provide new insight and drive toward the existing goal.
The times I have enjoyed the most have been through team building. By celebrating wins and directly bringing on exciting talent we bolster our ability to continue reaching the next milestone and the next phase of opportunity.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
It might be front-of-mind because of its proximity to our daily work at Ursa Major, but advanced manufacturing is seeing a renaissance, particularly in aerospace. The aerospace industry stretches material compatibilities and environments, and the long development tails and high hardware costs incite step-function improvement. From materials development to additive manufacturing, advanced coatings for thermal applications and exciting developments in electronics/mechatronics, investment in manufacturing stands to be an expanding market with new areas of study and expertise in growing demand. Some areas I am excited about in the coming years are materials development, advanced process development (see SpaceX’s Starship tanks or the advancement in cryogenic composite tanks), and data-backed rapid manufacturing and MES (manufacturing execution systems).
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
Never stop tinkering. This can be through expanding your hardware comfort by working on cars in your spare time or learning to program even though it isn’t directly related to your job. It may not feel like you are taking work home with you but making hobbies of technical challenges is more feasible today than ever and it will help your product, career, company, and industry. This breadth of technical view often helps turn the daily grind of work problems into more exciting, forward-looking solutions.
As for resources there are many incredible books written in recent years that one comes across in the startup world, but they are also supportive of career transformations and growth. A select few of these include Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things,” James Collins’s “Good to Great,” Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson’s “Rework,” Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s “Extreme Ownership,” Stanley McChrystal’s “Team of Teams,” and John Doerr’s “Measure What Matters.”
Is there anything else you would like to share?
While the problem set and solution base are vastly different than in previous decades, this is the industry that put people on the moon, flew the U-2 and SR-71, and allows us to pinpoint where we are on a globe while miles away from the nearest concrete. Governments worldwide are interacting with private industry in new ways, and commercialization and iteration of tech are happening at unprecedented rates. The roles and companies in existence today will be transformative and looked back on as inspirational in their own right, so for those seeking to make a lasting impact there is no better time than now.