A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Shravan Hariharan, MIT AeroAstro Graduate Student and incoming Advanced Concepts Systems Engineer at Blue Origin, former Intern at Blue Origin, SpinLaunch, Northrup Gruman, and NASA, 2019 Matthew Isakowitz Fellow, Analog Astronaut.
What is your background?
I’m an explorer at heart, and I’ve always been drawn to experiences and adventures that allow me to see and learn more about our world and the people in it. When I first saw the Milky Way in high school and discovered my love for space, I found my dream for my next (and biggest) adventure - to either go to space myself, or build the systems that would allow humans to expand our tiny footprint and establish a sustainable permanent presence in space. My rationale was that there were so many unknowns in our vast universe, which would require a tremendous amount of innovation to explore. That innovation would lead to the development of infrastructure and technology that would concurrently benefit life on Earth as well as reduce the barrier to entry for accessing space.
This led me to study Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Tech, where I led technical project teams as well as service organizations supporting our department’s student body. After graduation from Georgia Tech, I began graduate school at MIT, also in Aerospace Engineering. My research here is in the field of In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), which is the study of how we can utilize resources found on another planetary body to support exploration, e.g. “living off the land”.
I also participated in the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship (MIFP), which connected me to an incredible network of students and young professionals in the commercial space industry who continue to inspire me every day! Through MIFP, I discovered a passion for the New Space economy – since then, I’ve been exploring how I might apply my technical background and experience to help evaluate and develop space-focused ventures, either as preparation for a venture of my own down the road or for a potential future career helping venture capital firms guide their space-focused investments.
After my graduation from MIT with my Master’s Degree, I’ll begin working at Blue Origin as a Systems Engineer on the Advanced Concepts team within the Advanced Development Programs division. In this role, I’ll be responsible for early-stage project formulation and architecting, conducting technical feasibility studies and trades to evaluate space transportation and exploration concepts for the company to work on moving forward.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
I would say my top accomplishment is my completion of an analog astronaut mission at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS). During this two-week mission, I lived in a habitat in a simulated Martian environment, where our crew of six conducted research experiments similar to those future Martian astronauts may be tasked with. As Crew Engineer, I was responsible for operating and maintaining all technical systems within our habitat, all while running my own experiments on astronaut dexterity and emergency shelter site evaluation. This was an unparalleled learning experience in my career. I had to combine my technical skills with an operational mentality, responding to system anomalies with a methodological approach to identify the problem, evaluate courses of action, and lead the implementation of corrections. I proved to myself that I had the skills and mentality required of a Martian astronaut, and I’ve applied the skills I developed here to all the teams I’ve joined since!
Most importantly, I was able to share this experience with an outstanding crew – we learned how to work and live together in a very tight space, and how to support each other through times of technical and emotional difficulty. I’m most proud of the fact that my crew trusted me to fill the critical Crew Engineer role, and that they gave me the opportunity to learn so much from all of them during this shared experience! I’m hoping that this will be the first field expedition of many, because I’ve never been able to learn more.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
While the skills and theory I’ve learned in my classes and projects have been valuable, it was really my decision to experience as many internships that I could that helped set the stage for the rest of my career. During my 7 internships, I learned that most problems in the real world don’t have a closed form solution. And so much of the problem-solving process involves an iterative process of talking to others, trial-and-error, and letting go of any preconceived notions I may have had about how to solve the problem. I also saw firsthand that communication is key – even if you can solve a technical problem, you need to be able to communicate it with broad audiences and understand how your work fits into the larger context of your overall program and team.
Also, by working at a variety of organizations in civil and commercial space, and by working at companies ranging from 40 to over 100,000 employees, I was able to gain a broader understanding of the current state of the aerospace sector. By moving between these different organizations, I was able to find my “Goldilocks Zone”, or the combination of work scope and culture that was the best fit for my personality, skills, and goals. Through these experiences, I was able to learn so much about the different career paths for someone with an interest in space, and how there are so many opportunities to make a difference in the field, regardless of what your background is!
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
When picking where I wanted to do my Master’s Degree, I knew that I wanted to do a thesis-based program, which would give me the chance to own a research project of my choosing. At MIT, I’m working on the MOXIE project, which is a payload onboard the Perseverance rover that’s demonstrating the production of oxygen on Mars from the Martian atmosphere. By operating MOXIE on Mars and running laboratory testing in parallel, I’ve gained real-world experience that has taught me how to design a system with its operations in mind. I realized I was missing exposure to this critical part of a space system’s life cycle, and the lessons I’ve learned here will go a long way in my future career as a Space Systems Engineer!
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
I’ve enjoyed the projects I’ve worked on where I’ve had to apply the theory and disciplines covered in my classes and synthesize them to solve open-ended problems. For example, I’ve taken classes where the entire focus is on detailed design of a lunar scientific payload, or high-level design of a satellite constellation for internet service. On top of the exciting technical challenges, problems like these also require an understanding of cost and schedule, which are key in translating these experiences to the workforce. Most of my internships were like this, which is why I kept taking time off from school to go back to work!
I haven’t enjoyed working in large organizations with lots of bureaucracy, because I found it easy to feel like a cog in the machine and lose sight of the bigger picture and goals. Through this, I realized that I fit better with small, fast-paced teams. Even though I didn’t enjoy those experiences at large organizations, I still view them as a valuable learning experience.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
I see a wealth of opportunities related to the development of in-space platforms for science, communications, and tourism. With the emergence of reusable launch vehicles as well as dedicated small satellite launchers, the cost of accessing space is lower than ever before. With a drastically smaller barrier to entry due to the development of such infrastructure, products focused on the distribution and application of in-space services are due for a boom! Existing low-cost platforms such as CubeSats and other small satellite form factors can now be hosted on a dedicated launch, which means that payloads dependent on a specific orbit (such as space-based communications or Earth imaging to monitor climate change) no longer need to pay tens of millions of dollars to reach this orbit. The same rationale applies to larger payloads such as space-based hospitality platforms. Companies currently developing on-orbit servicing platforms will only increase space accessibility farther, so I see a great opportunity to tap into this wave of infrastructure development and join one of the many companies utilizing a cheaper ticket to space!
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
While developing relevant skills for your chosen field is important, don’t underestimate the importance of building a community! Space is full of difficult yet exciting problems to tackle, all of which require people from different backgrounds coming together for a common cause. Never say no to an opportunity to meet new people, because you never know how you may grow from these chance encounters, and how your paths may cross again in the future. Approach these meetings like a sponge – soak in as much information as you can, and reflect on what you’ve learned and how your perspective may have changed.
Programs such as the Brooke Owens Fellowship, Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship, and Patti Grace Smith Fellowship are great ways to join these communities, where you’ll get a chance to meet like minded individuals and hear their stories. This mentality can go even further - in your school, at work, or even in your local area, there are so many people to learn from, and others who have a lot to learn from you!
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I’ve learned during my career that there are many ways to forge your own path. If you can’t find a role that suits you, make one! Don’t be shy about reaching out to people who inspire you, or those you want to collaborate with. You won’t get a response to every cold email or LinkedIn message, but the ones you do get a response to have the potential to change your life. Also, don’t let failure discourage you from trying again. I was rejected for over 200 internships my first year at Georgia Tech, but the offers I received ended up opening doors to so many more.
Along those lines, please feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn if you’ve found anything I shared interesting! I’m always looking to meet new people, share any insights I may have, and listen to any advice that’ll help me at this early stage of my career. I’d love to connect to discuss volunteer, service, and community-building opportunities related to space, or just to hear your thoughts on the future of the New Space economy.