Spotlight

Space Talent Spotlight: Columbia Mishra

The Space Capital Podcast |

June 18, 2024

Columbia Mishra

"Believe in yourself more than you do, and don’t give up. You can stay true to who you are and keep pursuing your goals, even when the conditions aren’t ideal."

Spotlight

Space Talent Spotlight: Columbia Mishra

|

June 18, 2024

Columbia Mishra
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"Believe in yourself more than you do, and don’t give up. You can stay true to who you are and keep pursuing your goals, even when the conditions aren’t ideal."

Spotlight

Space Talent Spotlight: Columbia Mishra

Columbia Mishra

"Believe in yourself more than you do, and don’t give up. You can stay true to who you are and keep pursuing your goals, even when the conditions aren’t ideal."

IMAGE: Columbia Mishra head shot

A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Columbia Mishra, PhD, Program Chief Engineer - Maxar and Co-Founder of Global Space Industry Trade Association (GSITA), former Thermal Engineer at Intel, Apple, Stress Engineering Services, Makino Asia, and Tata Motors

What is your background?

I grew up in a small town called Malda in West Bengal, India. My parents named all their children after space shuttles because they saw space as a unifying mission to better humanity. They wanted us to dream big and follow our passions. I was always fascinated by space and science, inspired by the likes of Kalpana Chawla, the first woman of Indian origin to go to space. This inspiration fueled my curiosity about the world and my desire to explore the unknown. 

 

Columbia, Challenger, Apollo - Malda, India, 1997

“Columbia dreams of being a space scientist” -Newspaper coverage after securing All India Rank 4 in ICSE 2000

As the first engineer in my family, I faced unique challenges. Both my parents worked and shared responsibilities, setting an example of balance and hard work. They never held me back from my dreams, encouraging me to dream big. My path led me to pursue engineering, studying mechanical engineering for my bachelor's, master's, and PhD. My journey took me from India to the United States, where I studied theoretical fluid dynamics for my master's degree. My career took me across the globe, including a stint in Singapore working for a Japanese machine tools company supplying aerospace manufacturers.

Eventually, after receiving my green card, I joined Maxar Technologies in 2020 and moved to the Bay Area. My last role at Maxar was as a program chief engineer and systems engineering manager for a Geo-communication satellite mission. The journey wasn't easy, but it was incredibly fulfilling.

What have been your top career accomplishments so far?

One of my top accomplishments was starting the technology development group at Intel. Leading 60 engineers to create innovative projects that were integrated into production was incredible. It was about more than just my inventions, though I am proud to have several patents. The real accomplishment was fostering an environment where engineers could think creatively and share their ideas. One of my ideas becoming part of the Intel EVO product line was a tangible outcome of this effort, and it feels surreal to see my invention making a real-world impact.

At Maxar, I led the development of the first spaceflight computer for their Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. This was a significant achievement because it required building a team from scratch, writing the requirements, and leading the project through critical design reviews. This experience was invaluable in teaching me about leadership, project management, and the intricacies of space systems engineering. It was a challenging transition from my previous work, but it was a testament to my ability to adapt and succeed in new environments.

Jupiter - 3 Satellite Pre-ship, Spacecraft Systems Engineering Team, Maxar 2023

What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?

Perseverance and resilience have been crucial in my journey. I’ve faced numerous obstacles, but my determination to succeed kept me going. During my PhD, I had to switch advisors and labs three years into my research. This was a significant setback, as I had to start my research over. It was a matter of principle, as my previous advisor was unethical, and I couldn't allow someone like that to sign off on my dissertation. This decision was difficult, but it was the right one, and it taught me the importance of standing up for my values.

Another critical choice was running for the graduate student body president at UT Austin. This role allowed me to advocate for policies that supported students, including the first Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for graduate students and an exit survey to understand the graduate students experience. This experience taught me about leadership, advocacy, and the power of making a positive impact on others. It also reinforced my desire to make things better for those who come after me, which has been a driving force in my career.

Addressing incoming graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin as the GSA President, 2013

Meeting influential people in the industry and seizing opportunities when they arose was also crucial. For example, connecting with Michael Coats, the former director of Johnson Space Center, and meeting Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were defining moments. It reminded me of my passion for space and motivated me to find a way into the aerospace industry. Networking and building relationships have been essential in opening doors and advancing my career.

What part of your education had the most impact on your career?

The technical rigor of my education has had a profound impact on my career. Studying mechanical engineering and specializing in thermal fluids systems provided me with a strong foundation in solving complex problems. This technical expertise has been invaluable in every role I've taken on, from oil and gas to aerospace. The ability to approach any problem with a scientific mindset, to think logically and methodically, has been a cornerstone of my success.

However, beyond the technical skills, my education also taught me the importance of perseverance and resilience. During my PhD, I faced significant challenges, including having to switch advisors and start my research over. This experience taught me the value of persistence and the importance of standing up for what is right. It also taught me to advocate for myself and others, a lesson that has been crucial in my career.

The freedom to think creatively and come up with new ideas was another vital aspect of my education. Academia provided a unique environment to explore, innovate, and push the boundaries of knowledge. This freedom to think and innovate has been a driving force in my career, inspiring me to continually seek out new challenges and opportunities for growth.

Receiving the Emerging Leader Award, and Patent Recognition Award from Alexis McKittrick, President of Society of Women Engineers, 2023.

What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least? 

I have been fortunate to work on problems that I am deeply passionate about. The most enjoyable aspect of my career has been the opportunity to tackle challenging technical problems and find innovative solutions. Whether it was developing new technologies at Intel or leading space missions at Maxar, the work has always been intellectually stimulating and fulfilling. I love the process of solving complex problems and seeing the tangible impact of my work.

However, the least enjoyable aspect has been the politics and resource constraints often present in the workplace. Navigating these challenges can be frustrating, especially when they hinder innovation and progress. I have always believed in creating a culture of empowerment and collaboration, where people can do their best work without fear or competition. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and it can be disheartening to see how internal politics can stifle creativity and innovation.

Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?

The most promising career opportunities lie at the intersection of technology and societal impact. In my view, the space industry holds tremendous potential, especially in addressing issues like orbital debris and sustainable exploration. The challenge of managing and preserving the space environment for future generations is critical, and there is a growing need for innovative solutions in this area.

I believe that the future of space exploration involves thinking about how we can push the boundaries of what is possible while ensuring that our actions are sustainable. This includes developing technologies for space debris management, creating sustainable habitats on other planets, and exploring new frontiers in a way that benefits all of humanity. There is also significant potential in areas like space mining and moving heavy industries to space, which could revolutionize how we think about resource management on Earth.

For those just starting their careers, I would advise looking for opportunities where they can make a real difference. Find problems that you are passionate about and that have a significant societal impact. Whether it's in space, healthcare, renewable energy, or any other field, the key is to find the intersection of your skills and what the world needs.

What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?    

My biggest piece of advice is to believe in yourself and never give up. The journey can be challenging, and there will be times when it feels like the odds are stacked against you. However, perseverance and resilience are crucial. Stay true to your passions and keep pursuing your goals, even when the path is difficult.

It's also important to seek out mentors and build a strong support network. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and who can provide guidance and support. Don't be afraid to ask for help and to learn from others. Networking and building relationships are essential in advancing your career and finding new opportunities.

Finally, take the time to reflect on your values and what motivates you. Understand what you care about and what you want to achieve. This self-awareness will help guide your decisions and keep you focused on your goals. Remember that success is not just about reaching the top; it's about making a positive impact and leaving a legacy that you can be proud of.

                                          

Is there anything else you would like to share?    

I co-founded the Global Space Industry Trade Association (GSITA) to address the challenges faced by aspiring space professionals, especially immigrants and dreamers. Our goal is to increase diversity, advocate for inclusive policies, and foster global collaboration in the space industry. 

The journey to get into the space industry has been incredibly challenging, especially for immigrants. It took me 20 years to achieve my dream of working in the space industry, and I want to make it easier for the next generation. GSITA aims to create a platform where companies and individuals can come together to share knowledge, advocate for policy changes, and work collaboratively for the advancement of space exploration.

We need to break down the barriers that make it difficult for talented individuals to enter the space industry. This includes addressing cultural challenges and creating an environment that encourages independent thinking and innovation. Our goal is to increase the participation of underrepresented groups and to foster global cooperation. By doing so, we can ensure that the space industry continues to grow and thrive, benefiting all of humanity.


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Space Talent Spotlight: Columbia Mishra

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