A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Luc Riesbeck, Space Policy Researcher at Astroscale, Brooke Owens Fellow with Space Capital
What is your background?
I had actually never considered going into the space at the outset of my studies. I pursued a Social Sciences undergraduate degree at NYU Shanghai, with the idea that I would probably remain in academia in sociological research. During my first few years there, I started learning more about the sociology and history of science and technology-- including how scientific inquiry and politics shape each other, which I’d never been exposed to much growing up. After meeting some of the members of an ISU Summer Studies program that was hosted in my hometown, I started looking into space programs more seriously, particularly their role in spurring technological development and public interest in science.
The summer after my junior year, I was fortunate enough to land an internship position at the Jackson NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., at the Office of International and Interagency Relations. That experience was really foundational, because I realized that space technologies, research, policies, and programs weave through so many other areas of political and social science, so there’s room for everyone to pursue their ideas, especially those who have been (and are still!) largely ignored in space policy circles.
I went on to complete a Master’s Degree in the International Science and Technology Policy program at George Washington University, through the Space Policy Institute, which helped me to focus my research interests and taught me how to continually build up my knowledge base on the issues that are defining the next few decades for space. Today, I work as a Space Policy Research Analyst at a company called Astroscale U.S., which is developing some really exciting cutting-edge technologies to address the space debris and sustainability problem, through projects like space debris removal and on-orbit satellite rendezvous and servicing. A lot of what Astroscale U.S. is doing has truly never been done before, because it’s been perceived as too difficult to ever accomplish--but those are the exact kind of problems I love to work on.
What have been your top three career accomplishments so far?
I’m still starting out, but one accomplishment I’m actually really proud of is completing my degrees, especially my Master’s degree. For a few reasons, my journey through academia was extremely difficult, so sticking with it and graduating was a hugely significant achievement for me, especially while working full time and graduating into a pandemic.
It’s also been a great feeling to collaborate on research projects. Many of the projects, ideas, and published pieces that I’m most proud of have been co-authored with other researchers that I admire. Issues in space policy are constantly shifting and changing as technologies and science develops, so you have to enjoy collaborating and being proven wrong sometimes. I love it.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
I really can’t give enough credit to the NASA internship I was able to participate in as an undergraduate student. It was a foundational step in my career in space policy, mostly due to the fact that the team there was so incredibly welcoming and supportive. They respected my research and were eager to point me towards other opportunities available to undergraduates in space policy, like the Brooke Owens Fellowship Program.
Another driving force in my career so far has been the generosity and patience of others. Because I didn’t have a formal engineering or physics degree, I was worried about pursuing a Master’s in space policy. At the time, I thought I’d be playing catch-up a lot--but others in the space policy community took chances on me and were really generous with their time. Now that I’ve got my feet on firmer ground in my own work, I do my best to pay that forward as a peer mentor whenever I can, because I don’t see the point in playing the competitive game. The way I see it, no one else’s success takes away from my own; in fact, it’s still my favorite thing to learn from others. It’s in my best interest to encourage as many new perspectives as I can to enter into this field; that’s the only way progress happens.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
The largest impact actually came before I even began researching space. Throughout my undergraduate degree, I made it a priority to take a wide range of electives--subjects like queer studies, complex systems science, cinema, international law, media studies, arts and writing workshops, and history. In retrospect, I’m so glad I did that. Those courses help me grow as a person and taught me the importance of approaching your research from a more well-rounded perspective. I think because some disciplines in the space industry (and in STEM in general) are so technical, it’s easy to silo yourself into specific methods and rigid ways of thinking through problems. Taking a range of courses, and every so often engaging with material that hasn’t been incorporated into my field yet, stimulates my curiosity and has encouraged me to engage with cross-disciplinary methods and expertise in my research. I think the results of my work itself are a lot stronger because of that.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
Hands down, the best part about my career has been meeting others in space disciplines. I wasn’t the most popular kid growing up, so I never in my wildest dreams expected to find such a welcoming community as the space community. Through my experience as a Brooke Owens Fellow, especially, I made a lot of connections with peers that are working on projects that truly blow my mind. It’s a great, motivating feeling to be able to look up to people your own age, and I’m thrilled that this industry takes mentorship so seriously. In fact, I met my current boss at an event where she was serving as a subject matter expert and Executive Mentor judging a Grand Challenge competition for young space professionals. She’s been such a role model, to me and many other young professionals, and she proves how positive an impact mentorship can have.
There is one element of my career so far that I regret, which is that I didn’t seriously dedicate the time and effort to take care of my mental health until after I left academia. The pandemic made me realize that I wasted so much time and energy doing things the “hard way,” and trying to muscle through things I was struggling with without acknowledging them, which in retrospect was totally pointless. I’m lucky to have formed a support network that has helped me start to turn things around. It may not be a physical award, a paper, or a career milestone, but getting more in touch with myself and learning to value and prioritize my mental health has been my biggest personal accomplishment of the past few years. I really encourage all young professionals not to sacrifice their mental health for their career or their studies no matter how much pressure you may be under. Seek out accommodations and care where you can, and don’t put it off like I did.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
This is an interesting question, because I am seeing a lot of completely new career opportunities opening up all over the space industry, but I also consider us to be at a crossroads in some respects. On the first point, even from the time I entered my master’s to the time I graduated, I’ve seen some researchers and policy analysts be able to create new types of positions in industry and academia that didn’t exist before. At the same time, things are shifting so rapidly that I can’t even confidently predict what’s going to be most important a decade from now. I think the space industry is finally starting to realize that, in staying so closed off, we’ve been working with one metaphorical hand tied behind our backs. Orbital debris is a great example--it’s a really complex, multilayered challenge, but there’s still a lot of room to incorporate knowledge from other disciplines, industries, and regions to address it. Even though I work at the U.S. subsidiary, and my work mostly focuses on U.S. projects, the wider Astroscale team is spread across the globe, and it’s been really wonderful to put these problems in a global context. I hope the space industry--across commercial governmental, and academic teams--can keep growing into the hub for multidisciplinary work it should be. We need to proactively incorporate perspectives from historically unheard and ignored stakeholders in space, from exploration and astronomy to satellite servicing and data applications back on the ground. Space technologies and data have the capacity to help so many people, but only if we’re careful and robust in our approaches. So I would say my hope is that the most promising career opportunities in my lifetime will be on those kinds of collaborative teams.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation following a similar career path?
One of the hardest but absolute best things we can do for ourselves is to be honest about our areas for self-improvement and ask mentor figures for concrete advice on how to get better at them. This may seem like a very obvious thing to mention, but I still see a lot of young professionals who were simply never taught how to ask for help, or how to accept constructive criticism. No matter what you do--every class, every internship, every presentation or paper or other project you work hard on--ask for feedback on it whenever you can. For the rest of your life. Provided there are mentor figures in your life who you trust, getting in the habit of seeking constructive criticism is actually really gratifying, because it acts as a check on your self-assessments. I think most of us are far too self-critical and, at the same time, are afraid of rejection, so we don’t seek out critical feedback. Your self-consciousness or self-doubt may lead you to think you completely bombed a project, or did really poorly in a presentation--but a TA, coworker, or other colleague could provide you praise where it’s due and elements to work on for the future. Seeking constructive feedback from a trusted source helps ensure your impressions of yourself align with reality.
On that note, I want young professionals entering space disciplines to know that this industry--like so many other industries, especially in STEM fields--was not designed for everyone to succeed. Human use of space technologies was born out of a very distinct political and historical moment. Generally speaking, these legacy space programs were designed to both include and serve a very narrow portion of people with even narrower perspectives and skills. The good news is that this has opened up in recent decades, but keep in mind that elements of those initial design approaches, structures, and methods linger in today’s work cultures. If you’re a member of a marginalized community, what you’re feeling coming into space disciplines is probably not impostor syndrome--it’s likely a logical recognition and reaction to the biases and marginalization that are still prevalent across space organizations. Many of us within them are working however we can to move towards greater equity, but we’re not there yet, by any means. So keep that in mind when you hear about impostor syndrome and self-evaluating your own skills, goals, and areas to improve.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
In addition to the wealth of resources for students at Space Talent, I’d encourage folks to keep an eye on fellowship opportunities across graduate and undergraduate levels. Some notable programs and organizations for students interested in space policy are:
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.