A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview withJack Goodwin, current MBA student at Harvard Business School and former Deputy Program Manager at Airbus U.S. Space and Defense.
What is your background?
Identity has played a central role in my love of space and humans. As an only child with two loving but emotionally reserved parents, I often wondered about what place I held in the world. Sneaking out at night to look up at the night stars helped to ground me by making me feel small under the vastness of the universe, but also closely connected to the rest of our species who flew through space together on the same rock. A signed note from astronauts Neil Armstrong and Dick Gordon sent to my grandfather and namesake hung proudly in our household. To me, that note served as proof that a life pursuing space as a career was possible, beginning my journey as an aspiring US astronaut candidate.
Success came earlier than anticipated as some of my more modern astronaut heroes and heroines became my mentors. As a junior in college, I traveled to NASA Johnson Space Center to fly aboard the “Vomit Comet” as part of the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, experimenting with the performance of biofuel combustion in microgravity. Floating about the cabin with former US astronauts and now research advisors Cady Coleman and Mike Fossum served as my first glimpse into a possible future for a life that was out of this world.
Opting for the academic route to orbit (as opposed to other common routes to becoming an astronaut like doctor or pilot), Stanford proved to be the perfect place to start my PhD in plasma physics. With the goal of harnessing the power of the sun (plasma) for human applications, my research focused on space engines like ion thrusters and advanced communications technologies with plasma metamaterials. Life was going great. Then, I fell in love, and everything changed.
A few months after we started dating, my partner Mallory and I learned from her doctor that unless she got a double lung transplant and cure for a rare, antibiotic resistant superbug, she would have a year to live. Her genetic disorder, Cystic Fibrosis, was getting worse, and far away life decisions were soon drawn into immediate focus for both of us. For some time, I tried to be both a good PhD student and a good partner, but soon realized I was failing at both. I asked a lot of the wrong questions during this time, but eventually found the right question again circled around one of identity: what kind of man did I want to be? Did I want to be the type of man that loved someone just when it was convenient to me, or when it was hard? Once I asked the right question, the answer came easily: I wanted to be the kind of man that stayed.
I decided to drop out of the remainder of the program to spend more time supporting the rising healthcare needs of my partner, yes, but also because my views on my professional pursuits had changed. At my core, I was still mission driven to serve others, but exposure to the fragility and brevity of human life drove me to want to make an impact in people's lives far earlier in my career. I wanted to go where the action was, and that meant coming to terms with one thing: the space industry was going private.
Optimizing for serving others at scale, I first worked with SAIC on Air Force (now Space Force) military satellite communications systems at LA Air Force Base and then later with Airbus U.S. on DARPA mega-constellations at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, growing from a systems engineer to deputy program manager in a few years time. While exposure to the harsh realities of space was something that my engineering background had trained me to design for, I was not prepared for the even harsher realities of running a space business to success. I knew I had more to learn, leading me to pivot back into academia for the next stage of my career.
With the goal of learning what drove space businesses to success, I decided against finishing my PhD and instead getting an MBA from Harvard Business School. For my summer internship in 2022, I joined Apple’s Satellite Connectivity Group as an engineering program manager, working to connect hundreds of millions of iPhone users to emergency services via satellite link when they need it most. As a current second year student, I am enjoying my final days as a fun-employed academic: interfacing with industry leaders, taking advanced courses in negotiation, finance and technology strategy, and writing space business cases with distinguished professors. I graduate in May of 2023.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
I’ve been fortunate to have had a few successes in my career, but none I’m more proud of than supporting my late partner through her chronic and ultimately terminal illness. In moments of doubt, or exhaustion, or fear, I always found solace in the comfort of friends and family, the community of space and medical nerds who had my back, and a simple love for life despite its many challenges. Wherever my professional talents end up taking me, they will be rooted in my personal experience of witnessing the power of love in uniting humans to overcome grand challenges.
Before she died, Mallory asked that her personal journals, written from age 15 until she passed, be published in the hope of helping those living with, or loving someone with, chronic illness. The book, Salt In My Soul, soon became a bestseller, leading to a documentary of the same name and part of my TED Talk on Love, Loss and the Quest to “Live Happy.” With superbugs projected to kill more than cancer by 2050, the work that used Phage Therapy to beat back Mallory’s B. Cepacia has become part of the basis for FDA approved phase-1b/2 clinical trials aimed at mass producing a cure.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
I’ve never had a bad time listening to someone’s story. As a kid, I saw biographies as a way to view someone’s life through a condensed narrative. Learning from the lessons of others gave me time to reflect on the future I wanted for myself and the critical steps I would need to take to get there. As I got older, I found that while history books were great for capturing bold efforts of the time and setting precedents to learn from, they were not as current to the challenges of today’s rapidly changing world. Throughout my career, I’ve made a point to connect with space leaders who have far greater experience than myself to learn from both their successes and their failures. In a field often tasked with exploring and understanding the unknowns of space, learning from diverse perspectives has been key in illuminating a path that would best position myself and my teams for success.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
While Stanford certainly bolstered my passion for design thinking, first principles approaches and technology innovation, my greatest growth in academia came from my time studying abroad as an exchange student at Cambridge University in England. I saw that time in my life as a complete escape – one defined by a sense of absolute freedom – in stark contrast to my rigid undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering. I took zero technical classes while abroad, focusing instead on the subjects of creativity, innovation and business that allowed me the mental space to imagine what was possible in the future. Where my engineering background gave me a solid foundation on how to complete a mission, my time spent studying the questions of who, what, when, where, and most importantly, why have remained the most valuable part of my education.
Learning to ask the right questions has aided me in every part of working with cross-functional teams. With the development and integration of space technologies becoming increasingly more complex, asking good questions has allowed me to not just understand the most crucial aspects of a project, but also paint a picture for others that is clear enough to act on.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
My answer is the same for most and least: working and living in so many cool places! Space has taken me from big cities to remote launch sites, allied nations abroad to domestic government and business partners. Amongst a melting pot of diverse backgrounds and histories, there is no one common identifier to what a space nerd looks like other than a shared goal of bringing the benefits of space back home to the people of planet earth. The downside is that sometimes pursuing the next best career growth opportunity requires a move to another town. However, if that’s the cost of working with out-of-this-world technologies, then so be it!
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
In the near term, there are many compelling business cases coming out of the space data vertical. In the medium to long term, government investment around lunar infrastructure will provide both ample outlet and reward for pioneering ideas worthy of the next generation of space investment.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
Don’t be afraid to dream of a space future that you would want your children to live in. Watch all of the movies, read all of the books of fiction and nonfiction, stare up at the moon and the stars and imagine the society you believe future generations would be excited to live in. Once you’ve done all of that and you have an image in your head, work backwards to identify what key building blocks are needed to turn those dreams into reality. That’s when the magic happens. Ad astra!