A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Garima Gupta, Sr Program Manager at Varda Space Industries, previously Mission Manager, Lead Propulsion Engineer, and Propulsion Development Engineer at SpaceX.
What is your background?
I was born in India and lived there for 6 years before my parents immigrated to the United States. Since then, I’ve lived all over the country, but for the longest time, I lived in Florida, roughly 2 hours from Cape Canaveral, where the Kennedy Space Center is. I remember I went there for the first time when I was 9 years old and so many women were highlighted like Valentina Teresokova, Sally Ride, and Eileen Collins, and I remember just being incredibly inspired. There were exhibits about Mars; and I remember seeing they had this really ambitious thought at the time, this was roughly 2001, that we would ‘be on Mars by 2020,’ and I thought “Oh, I’m going to be old enough to go to space by then,” and that thought solidified my future. Every decision I made from that point forward regarding my career was centered around this thought. The goal of wanting to go to space.
I was very lucky to have parents that were supportive. They would take me to aviation summer camps at Cecil Airfield. I also went to a summer science program in New Mexico where we got to study Near-Earth Asteroids and determine their orbit. I somehow convinced them to enroll me in flight lessons, so I was actually able to earn my private pilot’s license in high school.
From there, I decided to go to university at Caltech. It is such a critical place for the history of science and space exploration, so it was a natural choice for me. They had a really interesting program called SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) where you could work with professors on campus or at JPL and be involved with projects. I did this for all three summers that I was at Caltech. The project that I worked on the longest was in the Geological and Planetary Sciences department.
Most of the missions to Mars have generally been connected by trying to find the existence of life beyond Earth and focused on the existence of water on the planet. One indication of a wet, conductive surface is cloud-to-ground lightning. In order to prove that there was once lightning, and thus water, on the surface of Mars, we were looking for something called ‘isothermal remnant magnetization’. That means that all of the magnetic dipoles in the rock that you are studying, align in a certain way, and you can determine this by taking a magnetometer to it. My project was building a stage that could move in three axes to study a rock, and it was intended to mimic an instrument that would be placed at the end of an arm of a Mars rover. So, we took this stage that I built out in the field in Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico and we would study petroglyphs, which were rocks with markings on them from ancient civilizations there. Long story short, this is one of the coolest things that I did in undergrad. It was the most applicable with what I wanted my career to be. At Caltech, most of what we learned in class were fundamental and foundational, not necessarily how to apply it in the world. These types of projects are what opened my eyes to the possibilities that might be with what I wanted in terms of next steps.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to proceed into a PhD or get a job in the industry, so I went to Georgia Tech for my masters for a bit of a different experience. Where Caltech was heavily focused on research and academia, Georgia Tech was much more industry-focused and more applied learning, which was really appealing to me.
I started networking with people, trying to find a connection at SpaceX, mainly because it was at the forefront of the space industry. I took a bunch of combustion and heat transfer classes both at Caltech and at Georgia Tech. I have always had an interest in and always wanted to work on boost propulsion engines. So, I reached out to the leader of the propulsion team at SpaceX (who also happened to be a Caltech alumnus), and made my interest clear in terms of where I was coming from and why. We had a couple of calls prior to a formal interview and then we took it from there. I landed the internship around the same time I started my graduate program. I learned more in that 3 month internship than I ever did in school and was so energized from the experience that I ended up turning that internship into a full-time position.
At SpaceX I had really great mentors, who encouraged me and empowered me to do things that I never had before. This was my first foray into the world of engineering. I had done many school projects and research programs, but this is where I learned what real-life engineering looks like, and I knew I wanted to continue to be a part of that story.
I was at SpaceX for 7 years, with the first 5 working on the first stage engines for Falcon 9. I started as an individual contributor, then eventually became a lead. The way I like to describe that role is that my team and I were essentially the primary points of contact for any hardware or software issues for the M1D engines, through their entire lifecycle. From build, through test, integration, all the way through to flight, then finally recovery, and refurbishment. I got the chance to see the engine as a complex system from beginning to end. I really enjoyed taking something from start to finish, and still enjoy that in my current role at Varda today.
At year 5, I reached a point in propulsion where my rate of learning had flattened. I was still contributing, solving problems, and doing really exciting work, but I felt like I had reached my limit in terms of how much and how quickly I could be learning. So, I decided I wanted to transition to a more generalist role. After asking a lot of questions from people in different departments, I transitioned to Mission Management, which was a part of the Customer Ops and Integration Department. Here, I supported national security programs and launch vehicle certification as a mission manager. This really helped me develop a centralized knowledge base for the launch workflow, again from “end to end” (contract sign to payload deployment).
After 7 years at SpaceX, I was looking for something different. Working with the same people, regarding the same topics, after I had done what I set out to achieve, and having learned so much, I was ready for another change. I wanted to explore something in the spacecraft industry, and a lot of people I knew that left SpaceX had come to Varda so I reached out to a few of them to find out what they were working on, and they suggested that I come for a tour.
The culture at Varda is just incredible. That was really my hook to start working here. It is still a small company, so the ownership aspect was also really appealing to me; coming from a larger company. The prospect of getting to start from scratch and building from there, really solidified my decision. Varda doesn’t have an underlying expectation of what you have to do to get ahead. I joined SpaceX when I was super young, and I had a lot to prove and garner a certain reputation. But that reputation came with me here and I immediately felt respected and felt the willingness to listen to my opinions. There are no egos and you can talk to anyone and feel empowered to express opinions.
My current role at Varda is Senior Program Manager, which is a bit similar actually to Mission Management, in that I own the end-to-end success of a program. Now, what that program may be, varies. For example, right now I am the program manager for re-entry, which means coordinating with all of our external commercial and regulatory partners to get our capsule in space back to Earth. Making sure everyone gets to the finish line at the same time.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
Two at SpaceX:
Arabsat 6A was the first falcon heavy mission for a customer. I got to lead the mission for the M1D Engine Operations Team. What made this so special was that it wasn’t just the first mission for a customer, but our first block 5 falcon heavy. I got to tackle all of the challenges that came with an upgraded engine, an entirely new thrust structure, and new supporting systems. It sticks out because it was the first time I felt truly independent and confident with the technical decisions that I was making. I got to sit in Firing Room 4, the same room where controllers sat for Apollo and Space Shuttle missions.
The second was more recent. Launching the flagship mission for SDA (Space Development Agency). As mission manager, I had a bird's-eye view of the entire process and was able to see the work of numerous teams across the company that I had not previously worked with. Launch was just the first step for the payloads we were supporting, and they had an entire life to live in space. But seeing them deploy was truly special. And just knowing that I played a small role in that flagship mission for a new government agency was really cool. I'm hoping that the next thing I add to my career accomplishments list is the impending reentry of the Varda capsule, we’re so close!
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
The SURF program in my undergraduate studies gave me a portfolio of work and the ability to stand out from the competition. I also had an internship with Northrop Grumman that gave me more hands-on experience. My transition from propulsion to mission management at SpaceX made me a more versatile and well-rounded engineer while giving me experience with indirect people management. This prepared me for the role at Varda and being at the forefront of the space industry.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
The educational foundations are really important for a highly technical engineering role. It is important to seek out every opportunity to apply what you have learned to real-world experience. This is what I did when I was at Caltech. They did not have a rocket team at the time, so I joined the robotics team. I also tried to get my hands on as much experience as possible in the machine shop. I continued to do this at Georgia Tech. I believe that it is important to seek out hands-on experience whenever possible.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
I enjoy the responsibility that comes with extreme ownership. I take pride in seeing projects through from start to finish, and every role I've taken has allowed me to do that. However, I also find that this can be a double-edged sword, as I'm terrible at drawing boundaries and can become consumed by my work. I find it difficult to separate my work life from my personal life. I'm working on finding a better balance. I'm trying to set more boundaries and to take more time for myself. I'm also trying to find ways to relax and de-stress outside of work.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
SpaceX has done a lot to get us to where we are today in terms of dropping the cost of access to space. Previous businesses that were not viable have now become viable, like Varda. The concept of manufacturing in microgravity has been around for decades, but launch has always been this cost-prohibitive. Commercializing this technology, and reusing rockets, which drops the cost down even more, has just really opened up access to space in a way we haven’t seen before. It has enabled smaller businesses to enter the arena, and stand a chance.
I might be biased but, I love the way Varda is making products in space for use back here on Earth. I think that is the key. There are a lot of priority issues happening here which has people thinking “why are we doing stuff on the moon and on Mars, when we can’t even figure out things here on Earth?” I think that the intersection between space and Earth is really important. The immediate opportunities right now are going to be the ones that provide value back here on Earth.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
One of my mentors once said, “Space is unforgiving, but that doesn’t mean you should be,” and what she meant by that, is that this industry is always high risk, high reward. Even the smallest mistake can have a catastrophic impact, and the prospect of that scares a lot of engineers. But, the best work is always done in an environment that tolerates mistakes and encourages lessons learned. Always try to do better today than you did yesterday. I encourage new engineers to have this same approach.