A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Wendy Shimata, VP of Autonomous Systems at Varda Space Industries, previously Sr. Manager, Spacecraft Software and Sr. Autonomous Systems Software Engineer at SpaceX and GNC Engineer Boeing.
What is your background?
I have been interested in space for most of my childhood and adult life; I was one of those kids who would ask my parents to stay up late to watch StarGate SG1 on Showtime. I was always fascinated by space exploration, from a civilization point of view and by what could be unlocked by traveling to different galaxies. I was always in awe of how small we are here on earth and how much there was to be explored.
When I was exploring space as a career path, I was first interested in being an astronomer and realized that I wanted something a bit more interactive than that. Then, I thought maybe I’d like to be an astronaut, but being someone who gets motion sickness, being an astronaut didn’t feel like the right way to go. After that, I thought, “ Well, I’ll send people to space.” As a 7th grader, it didn’t occur to me at the time that that meant engineering hardware and software; I just knew I wanted to be involved in sending people to space. I wanted to expand what we could do, from a science point of view, and what I could do from the ground to make that happen.
This interest led me to be very STEM-focused throughout high school. I was in physics, robotics teams, and science and competed in state-wide math competitions. Then, for my undergrad, I went to Cornell, where I studied Engineering Physics. These experiences gave me a great foundational skill set to learn fundamentally how things work. I chose Cornell mainly because of its highly hands-on engineering program, which was very big in student research and project teams. I was looking for several projects to get involved with, but I wanted something that had a tangible outcome, seeing something I specifically built. I joined CUSat, a part of the AFRL nanosat program, working on GNC, software and operations. I supported everything: integration and test, flight dynamics and analysis, operations, software, and mission operations. This hands-on engineering experience taught me a lot about the industry and how to engineer things to make hardware and software work together.
I had a few great internships while at Cornell, so after graduating in 2009, I was eager to start work immediately. I considered going straight to grad school but decided that I wanted to gain more practical experience first. So, I returned to the Boeing Satellite Systems GNC team. Since the company was previously part of Hughes Aircraft and later acquired by Boeing, I had the privilege of being mentored by people working on satellite systems since the 1960s. The department operated as a small business within the larger Boeing organization–it had its own high-bay and flew its own missions. Being a new engineer there was such an invaluable experience, as I had the opportunity to absorb all the knowledge around me. I remember walking through the high bay and seeing the entire history of all the satellites they had built, and I was truly inspired.
In the Spring of 2010, I started a part-time master’s program at USC. I chose this program for its unique astronautics program: many of the classes in the program were taught by people in the industry, which I found incredibly unique. One of my professors, James Wertz, was the author of the book I used as basically my satellite bible (SMAD) throughout college; so when walking into his class and seeing him there, in the flesh, knowing I would be learning from him was a neat reinforcement for me, to kind of marry the more theoretical degree I had in applied physics, with this masters program.
At the end of 2014, one of my old Cornell classmates contacted me; he was currently at SpaceX and told me they just signed the commercial crew contract, which was a new contract for partnering between NASA and private companies to manned space flight in lieu of the Shuttle being retired - both Boeing and SpaceX received contracts. Around the same time, SpaceX had recently started flying Dragon 1 Cargo Resupply missions more regularly. SpaceX had a revolutionary way of thinking about flight avionics and their software stack–specifically their use of state-of-the-art computing and processing, which makes the doors you can open feel unlimited. Their design relied on a distributed network and teaching their rockets and satellites to adjust if one falls off due to failure or radiation. I had been familiar with SpaceX since the AFRL program competition, but I always looked at it as a small, scrappy startup. The more research I did, learning about the progress that they had made by 2014, the more I realized that they were becoming a legitimate organization: they were revolutionizing their commercial assets and access to space.
About halfway through my time at SpaceX in 2018, I became a manager and saw it as an opportunity to formalize my technical leadership. I had never formally pursued formal direct reports or career management before so I was surprised by how much of the people aspect I enjoyed. Even as my management role grew over time, it was immensely fulfilling to lead by example of what engineering culture and ownership should look like. I have the opportunity to set that precedent and help people grow and help them mold into the various roles they are interested in. I was very grateful for this experience.
At the end of 2021, after the first Dragon 2 freeflyer mission (Inspiration-4) had completed, I made the move entirely from the Dragon program to Starship to lead the Human Lander program for software. A few months later, my old SpaceX coworker, Will Bruey, reached out to me about Varda and joining their team. I wasn’t looking for a new job, but considering the recent transitions, I was already actively thinking about new roles, teams, and opportunities, so I already had ‘making a transition’ primed in my mind.
Given the cadence and cost reduction that SpaceX had achieved, my interest was piqued about what this could unlock for future capabilities and what was next in this industry. The novelty of what Varda is doing hooked me. No one else was in the in-space manufacturing business, and I was attracted to being a part of a smaller team at a very early technical stage in its engineering progress, to build the technology for autonomous systems from the ground up, reducing system complexity and ensuring that capabilities within software, GNC and mission operations could be worked on in unison. I also loved the opportunity to join the leadership team at a young stage to help build the company and engineering culture directly.
When I finally joined, I loved being a part of a small organization where everyone was incentivized to bring the best of everyone’s experiences and what everyone had learned at their former companies to Varda provided a unique opportunity to be a part of a team to build something.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
I’d have to say helping to fly the Dragon 2 Demo 2 mission while at SpaceX. I was the software lead for the program, and I had the opportunity to sit on-console as a flight software specialist during the launch in May 2020. I had the opportunity to work directly with Bob and Doug on several occasions for life support and crew capabilities software, so knowing that I’d help design and write a lot of the software gave the project breath (literally!) was a considerable accomplishment. Knowing how much hard work had gone into ensuring that all of the software worked as intended and sitting there in console mission control, watching Falcon take flight for the first time was incredibly surreal.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
I’ve always tried to stay humble with my work and view us as a team. I believe there is no task too small to make something work. I’ve always been open to taking on tedious and repetitive tasks that most people consider boring or don’t have an interest in to improve things. This has helped me build a reputation for not being afraid to do hard work.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
I had a great mentor at Cornell; he was the faculty advisor of the CUSat (Cornell University Satellite) program, a phenomenal engineer, and selected excellent coursework. The degree and hands-on experience really helped me formulate what was happening beyond the academic worldview of formulas and equations.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
Space is inspiring. At Varda, at times it can be hard to understand if we are a pharmaceutical company, a space company, or a manufacturing company, but the truth is we’re doing all of this. We’re building a gravity-off machine that allows us to develop potentially life-saving medicine and that’s both wild and astonishing. This is what investing in space should be; it improves life here on Earth and beyond.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
Stay curious! With so much information and education immediately available to learn and grow, everyone should utilize it. Just having access to the internet and online courses, Youtube education, hardware development kits, there is so much learning you can do on your own.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The best practices I learned as a manager: