A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Krystle Caponio, Chief Legal Officer & General Counsel at Vast and Launcher (a wholly owned subsidiary of Vast); former General Counsel & Corporate Secretary at LeoLabs; former General Counsel & Corporate Secretary at Terran Orbital; former Legal Counsel at SpaceX.
What is your background?
I grew up in Los Angeles as the first generation in my family born in the U.S. I attended undergrad locally, majoring in English. Being first generation, it was incredibly important to me to have a strong command of the English language, thus I majored in English in undergrad. My next step was that I wanted to have a strong understanding of the legal system so I could advocate for others. I worked incredibly hard to excel academically, which allowed me to receive a full scholarship to attend law school. I initially worked in entertainment law, but found my purpose in pro bono work for artists and inventors and working with underserved communities. I was passionate about empowering creators and innovators to pursue their vision, which eventually led me to working in the software/online media industry. In 2010, SpaceX reached out to me about joining their initial in-house legal team. My father had always been incredibly proud and inspired by this country’s space program, so I grew up with a fascination with space, and this was a really exciting opportunity for me. While some may have found it crazy or impossible, I was fully on board with helping make the vision and mission a reality. Once I joined, I was tasked with learning and navigating the regulatory environment. Export control, launching satellites, and foreign touchpoints. At the time, the government was receptive to an adoptive, more privatized regulatory framework and SpaceX was really the catalyst to make that happen. I became SpaceX’s first in-house counsel based in their Hawthorne headquarters, which started my career within the new space industry. When SpaceX launched, it enabled a whole wave of new companies to develop, and I saw an opportunity to support new companies to start up and grow. After SpaceX, I went on to become the first GC for a variety of space start-ups disrupting the industry with their advanced technologies.
Now, I am at Vast. We are building a next generation space station, which is absolutely critical to push humanity further out in space, and our focus on gravity is the only solution that enables extended human presence. Vast has a strong financial position since founding;due to that as well as our values and culture, we have been in a great position to recruit the best talent out there. I really feel like we are unstoppable.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
In addition to tackling a variety of novel, complex legal and business challenges, I consider instilling empathy, trust, accountability, and stewardship within an organization to be some of my top career accomplishments. While I’m extremely proud of the various successes of my companies, I’m equally proud of the individual growth and development of my team members who have contributed to making these successes possible. It takes the right balance in leadership to promote innovation, empower employees, and also assure their well-being. With that combination, everything becomes possible.
I joined Vast last year as their 5th employee, and now we are at 120 employees in less than a year and are continuing to grow. We started from the beginning, a strong set of values in our culture. We live it and breathe it. It is truly essential to get it right from the beginning in these areas. Early on, we regularly did 1:1 stakeholder interviews and received comprehensive feedback from the team. We saw consistency amongst the team and we were able to clearly articulate our culture and recruit for it.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
At Vast it became clear that once you have the right base, it begins to compound on itself. New team members further enhance our culture and carry on the values, because you are recruiting people who already have these values instilled. It is super important to keep open lines of communication across teams and be able to be honest. It helps us keep true to these values.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
While law school provided me with a good foundation to think logically and solve problems, my time at SpaceX helped shape how I think and operate as a lawyer and business partner. SpaceX has a concept of being a responsible engineer, and it helped me engrain this into my career ever sense. Proactivity, efficiency, and constantly challenging the “boundaries” of what’s possible are critical to fostering rapid innovation and growth. As Grace Hopper wisely stated, the most dangerous phrase in our language is “we’ve always done it that way.”
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of teams accomplishing tremendous successes within the industry, but with that came failures and lessons learned along the way. Space-based missions require immense coordination and precision. Everything has to happen at the right time, and there is very little margin for error. Even a small oversight can cause a mission to fail.
I think the best way to deal with the stress of working in the space industry is to focus on the task at hand. You can't let the pressure get to you– you have to trust your training and your team, and know that you're doing everything you can to make the mission a success.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
While achieving goals is important; how you achieve them is even more important. Valuing sustainability as well as diversity, inclusion, and equity are critical for effecting real progress and change within organizations and improving humanity as a whole. But more than valuing these things, what is really important is to practice what you preach with diversity in companies. Especially in leadership roles, it is very important. That is where you have to start.
I would also advise the next generation to be curious and to always ask questions. The world is a big and complex place, and there is always more to learn. Don't be afraid to explore new things and take risks to pursue your dreams.