A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Laura Crabtree, Co-founder and CEO at Epsilon3, former Senior Mission Operations Engineer at SpaceX
What is your background?
I was one of the Crew Operations & Resource Engineers (CORE) who helped put the United States back in the human Space Flight business. I was among the initial members of the operations team for the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, was also on console for the first Dragon mission in 2010, the first mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2012, and was part of the commercial crew contract over the next decade—including the mission that delivered astronauts to the ISS in 2020. I was the lead trainer for the crew and one of the CORE operators who communicated to and advocated for the crew during free flight. One of my proudest moments was when I received a call on my personal cell phone from Astronaut Doug Hurley when he was orbiting above the earth and operating both the first commercial cargo and crew vehicles in free flight.
During my time at SpaceX, I was also a part of the early F9 Recovery, Dragon Recovery, and Dragon operations teams. I was responsible for crew and ground operator flight training, flight software test, CONOPs development and simulator design. Over the years, I authored, tested and executed hundreds of procedures for both the ground operations teams and the crew onboard Dragon.
In 2004, I began my career at Northrop Grumman working various programs for DARPA and other DoD customers, including a 4 year operations assignment in North Yorkshire, England. I earned a Bachelors in Astronautical Engineering and a Masters in Systems Architecture, both from the University of Southern California.
My passion is revolutionizing the space industry, beginning with operational tools. I’m thrilled to be in another startup environment after eleven years at SpaceX.
I am also the proud mom of two young boys and am passionate about women in STEM. I encourage children to chase their dreams in science, technology, the arts, or any other passion. I also enjoy long runs with my dog and cycling up the biggest hills I can find.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
My goal at SpaceX was to get humans back to the ISS from US soil. During my time there, I accomplished 3 moments which shaped my career and thinking, and a 4th which shapes my current world:
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
I made a choice early on not to listen to anyone who said I couldn’t do something. I’ve also never been scared of a challenge. Being able to look myself in the mirror and ensure that I “left it all out on the field” is sort of how I lived my life thus far. I never want to look back and say “what if?” so I take chances that others might not.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
My early education shaped everything about how I thought about life and continued learning. I went to a Montessori school from an early age, and there I learned about the challenges of learning, and what I liked best. I gravitated towards math and science, and my teachers at that Montessori school are the reason why I am where I am. Because of them I was not scared to tell anyone (being a woman) that I didn’t love language or social studies. I was able to stand up for what I wanted and gear my entire learning towards math / science.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
There are always ups and downs with any career, and I think pushing through the moments of frustration makes you stronger. I have been met with some adversity in my career and while addressing adversity head on is never a pleasant experience, once you do, you'll truly know what you're made of. At the moment, these situations were tough, but I have learned the most from them.
Human interaction, when in a fast paced environment, with high stakes operations can be very sensitive. There were times when we were all overworked, exhausted, frustrated and got short with one another. In those moments I learned to give grace to those around me as we were all in it together. There were a few specific moments leading up to the first mission to the ISS in 2012 where we had worked 18 hour days that tension between team members was at an all time high. This was both the best time and the most frustrating.
I’d also say that a lot of my frustration stemmed from the interconnectedness of the suite of tools I’ve used in an operational setting. While standout tools can be helpful on their own, they can be even greater when connected to other key information and functions. This frustration is particularly close to me, and why I have started Epsilon3 to solve the friction that I experienced between toolsets within the space industry.
The thing I’ve enjoyed the most is being in this great, supportive ecosystem of space. I’ve found that the founders, engineers, designers etc. have been the best people I’ve ever met. They know how to focus and get a job done, know how to have fun, and have become like family to me.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
When I was in school it was all about aerospace engineering and astronautics for me. There are now so many jobs outside of space that are just as exciting where people don’t necessarily focus. There is a lack of avionics engineers who know how to design electrical systems, know how to integrate, and can see the bigger picture. There will also always be huge opportunities for flight software, embedded software and ground software systems within the aerospace industry.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
Never stop learning. Grab any book you can get your hands on. Dive into experiences with both feet. Join clubs and design teams, learn from your peers and build them up. You’re stronger together than as one.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I’m so excited for the future of the space industry and can’t wait to see how it flourishes in the next few years. I'd like to see commercial astronaut flights becoming routine, I'd love to see commercial space stations being built and orbiting our earth and I'd also like to see partnerships among nations, companies from all over the planet, and people from all walks of life to come together for science, exploration and space!