Shelli Brunswick: The Ever-Expanding Opportunities of Space

Written by: The Inc. Tank

*This piece originally appeared on The Inc. Tank

On this edition of The Inc. Tank, Shelli Brunswick, COO of the Space Foundation, talks about how the growing space industry is creating wide-ranging opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Christina: Hello, I’m Christina Elson. And on this edition of “The Inc. Tank,” I’ll speak with Shelli Brunswick of the Space Foundation on how the space industry is changing, and creating wide-ranging opportunities for entrepreneurs. And we’ll also talk about the new jobs and careers that will be available for the next generation. Shelli, it’s really great to have you with me today in “The Inc. Tank.” So, we’re gonna talk about a lot of really cool stuff, you know, the emerging space industry, who’s getting involved in it, how you and the Space Foundation are encouraging diversity, and really a lot of different people to be involved in this growing and amazing industry. But let’s just sort of start a little bit at the beginning because, you know, space is something that is really kind of hot right now. Maybe it’s because all the people, in my age, were disappointed that we weren’t already in space. So, now, we have people that had millions and billions of dollars. And they decided to take some of that into their own hands to create a private industry aspect of it. But, you know, we have really massive investments. Again, the government’s getting involved in it. So it’s cool because it seems like there’s a lot of interest, right, a lot of inputs coming from different areas. But give me your sense of what is really going on with space privatization. Is this something that’s really happening? Is it just a few big companies? Are there opportunities? So, what’s going on? What do you see from your vantage point as this sort of leader and looking at this?

Shelli: Well, thank you for having me here today. It’s a privilege to be here and I love talking about the space economy, and the future of the space economy, and the workforce opportunities. So, I’d like to start by saying, the government is a very small part of the global space economy now. When you look at the global space economy, it’s currently $414 billion. Eighty percent of that is commercial. Only 20% is government. And the commercial side is gonna continue to grow exponentially. The government side is gonna stay about the same. So, the Space Foundation has been tracking the global space economy since 1984. It’s been one of our passions. We put out the annual…well, it used to be annual, now it’s quarterly in the space report. And we highlight the businesses and industries that are in the global space economy right now. So, you’re looking at infrastructure, activities, as well as products and services. And I’d like to highlight the products and services we’re currently seeing is $230 billion. And you’re probably thinking, “Well, what does that entail?” We’re talking about DirecTV, GPS applications. You’re looking at satellite communications, Earth observation. And how does that apply to us? Well, you think about, how did we get to work today? Well, we probably used a GPS app to get here, or Uber, or a car and it brought us to work. We probably looked at a weather app, again, space-based technology. We had an Amazon package delivered two days ago. How did that get to us? It got to us through space-based technology. And so, you’re seeing all these applications of space technology that people don’t realize space is part of everyday activities and we can’t live without that space activity.

Christina: When we’re talking about space-based technologies, you’re rightly so pointing out a lot of the technologies that are just part of our everyday lives, actually came from a goal and a desire to be able to create this foundation to reach outside of Planet Earth, right? And so, we have that end of it. And then we also have the example of technologies that are developing today, maybe not necessarily with a space first approach, but things that are helping us make progress further, faster and going to space. So, what are some of the things we’re seeing there? Why are these technologies helpful?

Shelli: So, there’s two ways of looking at it. There’s technology transfer, and I kind of shared some slides that you’ll be putting out for your viewers. And it’s technology that was created from the space program that’s now part of our daily lives. So, there’s healthcare activities, like LASIK surgery, mammograms. There’s materials, like now, fire fighters are all wearing materials that came from the space program, fire suppression materials. So, there’s activities that came from the space program and have transitioned into everyday products and services, that we have no idea that they came from the space program. We call that tech transfer. And NASA has a whole website full of opportunities for tech transfer. The other piece is tech insertion. And that’s where you would say, as an entrepreneur or a business person, you have a great idea that could help the government solve a problem. So, one of the areas we like to highlight is, as we look to go back to the moon, to stay this time, you know, entrepreneurs could go look at the NASA website and the Artemis timeline, and look at the critical technologies that NASA needs to get there. And they could look and say, “I have a solution for that technology they need.” And they could bring that to NASA as an option to get to the moon by 2024. So, it’s both ways. It’s the tech transfer from government, but the ability to tech insert as well to allow the government to benefit from the rapid pace that technology advances.

Christina: Yes. So, I really wanna highlight that because what you’re saying is very interesting that there are technologies listed there. And, you know, it is an active search for people to take these technologies, commercialize them, and think about how they can be used to solve problems in the space industry and the interstate, really, right, that there’s technologies that are available to you as an entrepreneur to look at. So, that’s cool. What about the private company? So, when we’re thinking about how they’re looking to solve some of these problems, are they working with entrepreneurs in the same way? Are they looking to form partnerships with smaller research and development groups? And what is that relationships sort of starting to look like between government and sort of big private industry, small space startups?

Shelli: There’s a mix of opportunities. We call it public-private partnership. And we always like to say, “No one goes to space alone.” It takes a team to get there. And it takes a team to bring small businesses, women-owned businesses, minority businesses, veteran-owned businesses to bring a product to market. So, there’s a couple of ways of looking at it. One, yes, the government has the patents that you can look at securing. They have grants, small business innovative research grants that you can apply for to develop your technology and help prove its concept. And then there’s also big companies have venture capital sides of their business as well, where they are out looking for technology or they wanna partner with smaller companies to bring technology more rapidly to the marketplace. So, it’s both the government and industry that is looking for these small businesses, minority-owned businesses, women-owned businesses to create solutions. And I’d like to highlight, it’s not just space technology as you think, space technology, it’s manufacturing jobs. We need manufacturers in America. By 2028, we’re looking at having a 2.4 million person shortfall in manufacturing specialists. And those necessarily are not people who are gonna be Ph.D.s or four-year degrees. They could be a certificate program and apprenticeship program, or a two-year college program, or they could go right into industry. So, there is a lot of opportunity in the space industry, whether you’re a full-time Ph.D., astronaut, rocket scientist, or you want a great job in manufacturing, that supplies products and services to the space industry. So, space is wide open. Government is one option, industry is another.

Christina: When you talk about manufacturing, you mean specifically like manufacturing critical components that are needed for the space-related technologies, that it’s preferable for whatever reason, to have that being done in the U.S. as part of a very tight, closely-knit industry?

Shelli: So, there’s two options. The one you described will be more the military or economic security side of the United States, where we’re looking at having suppliers that are U.S. citizens that can get clearances, that can be part of a secure supply chain, which includes cybersecurity of their intellectual property. But the other side is, again, that’s only gonna be 20% of this global space economy. The other 80% is gonna be other manufacturing. So, you know, I always hold up the phone and say, “There’s more technology in an iPhone than there was when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon,” more technology in this little piece of equipment. And so, you’re gonna have commercial producers like Apple and other commercial entities that also need supply chains and manufacturing. And so, the goal is we look at bringing more manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. or other like-minded countries. You’re looking at opportunities to create that workforce that fulfills those areas. We were just in Youngstown, Tuesday doing our space commerce program, where we were talking a lot about additive manufacturing, agriculture, aerospace, healthcare, to reinvigorate parts of America with great ideas, great opportunities because all Americans can benefit this, all citizens can benefit from the future of space technology.

Christina: It sounds like it’s just a wide open area. I mean, there’s so much opportunity. So, how are we approaching the idea of getting people trained and helping them understand where the opportunities are, you know, whether they are already out in the workforce and are thinking about what they can do to re-skill or, you know, get into a different kind of career, or people in middle school that we want to make sure that they’re seeing space-related technology as a viable career path for them. So, sort of give me a picture that’s so complicated, right? And that sort of projecting in the future, what even will be the jobs of the future and what are the skills that we wanna think about?

Shelli: Well, I’d like to start with this example. I’m gonna be speaking at a conference called Women in Space. And I’m bringing my mom. When my mom raised me, being a woman in space wasn’t even conceivable then. I’m now a woman in space and the current space economy, and the jobs there are now was not even conceivable. So, right now, we’re raising a future workforce for jobs that don’t even exist that we can’t even comprehend or understand. So, as the Space Foundation, we like to look at the whole workforce pipeline, but we do have our K through 12 programs, which is how are we preparing that future workforce. And it is STEM degrees. It’s science. It’s technology, engineering, mathematics, but it’s also those who have some STEM understanding. It’s also artists. It’s media. It’s all the areas that go into a normal business are now needed in the space business. So, every child has a place. But we also look at, what about the jobs where workers are being displaced by technology? Well, it’s partnering to re-skill those workers, up-skill them with new skills for perhaps manufacturing jobs. And then we look at the entrepreneurs and business leaders who may wanna start a new line of business based on this technology that’s available to bring to market. So, it’s really the whole workforce you have to look at and each step along the way. But, again, the harder one is the one for the K through 12 because we’re creating a workforce for future jobs that we can’t even comprehend. And so, we have to create a workforce that’s resilient, that has more than just certain skills. I like to call them essential skills. Some people call them soft skills. But we have to have workers who know how to get along with other people, collaborate. We have to have problem solvers. We have to have individuals who understand the artistic part of creating new products and services. And so, that takes an artistic mind as well. So, there’s a whole opportunity for workers in the workplace. And we have to inspire kids as early as possible to realize that there’s a place for them in the future.

Christina: Some of what it sounds like the Space Foundation is really focusing on is developing, like, the entrepreneurial mindset and thinking about how to create entrepreneurs from an early age, and then provide entrepreneurs with the opportunities and tools to, like, seize that opportunity, and understand how to build the business. I mean, I don’t know if you thought or, you know, the Space Foundation thought it would be in the business of sort of entrepreneurial training maybe 10 years ago, 5 years ago. So, what does that shift look like and sort of the focus that you realize, “Oh, you know, if we really wanna encourage our industry to flourish, we wanna take the lead and take the charge, you know, and provide some leadership here?”

Shelli: I always like to highlight, the Space Foundation is a 501(c)(3) for education. We were always found in that way in 1984. Now, we do bring the global space community together. When we started in 1984, that global space community was 400 people at our symposium. And this last April, it was 15,000. So, the global space community has grown, which means jobs and opportunity have grown. But as I said, over the last 30, 35 years, industry has changed. We realize that small business, minority business, women-owned business, manufacturing, those are the backbone of a robust economy. Those provide jobs and opportunity and economic development. So, we look at it holistically to say, “If we inspire the workforce and create the workforce, then jobs will come.” And when jobs come, that creates economic opportunity and that’s good for everybody. So, it’s a really holistic attitude that we look at it. The entrepreneurship piece has really come on in the last 5 to 10 years. And so, we are creating that entrepreneurship program. We call it Space Commerce Partners. But we are actually taking that into the high school as well and the junior high. We have a junior space entrepreneurship program to inspire kids, again, to think outside what traditional worked for us? When we think about work, we think about, I’m going into a job and I’m gonna work there 30 years. You might be a younger demographic than I am, but that was how it was when I came into the industry. And I did almost 30 years in the Air Force. That’s not the mindset of our workforce today coming in. They’re probably gonna be at a job 2.8 years. And then they’re gonna need to up-skill and re-skill because technology changes. So, we have to teach them the skills to be entrepreneurial. And so, the sooner we can bring that into the high school and junior high, the more likely those students are gonna be resilient and be able to adapt and continue to be entrepreneurial, and find new jobs, and new opportunities.

Christina: Why do we need diversity in space? I mean, why do we need to encourage, you know, a lot of different people to get into this industry?

Shelli: That is an excellent question. And I always like to say, for those who are the business-minded, look at the bottom line. It’s proven that when you have more women on your board and on your executive teams or diversity on your teams, you have better solutions, and you have a higher profit margin. So, those are the facts. The other side of it is it brings new ideas. And as we’re looking at technology, and creativity and creating new products and services, you wanna bring the best products and ideas to market. And it shouldn’t matter who it is. And when we look at 50% of the workforce is women, a little over 50% and we have diversity, if we’re not inviting them to the table, we’re not gonna get the best products and services. We’re not gonna be as competitive. And ultimately, every business wants to be competitive and be first in the market. So, bring all of the best ideas and your best players to the table.

Christina: Tell me a little bit about you. Like, why are you so interested in space?

Shelli: Well, after spending almost 30 years in the Air Force, and I did space acquisition, so I was there procuring the launch vehicles and the satellites, so, I have a passion for space. And then I’ve seen the market change. So, I was there when the government was the big purchaser. And now, the government is just one customer. So, I’ve seen the pendulum swing over the last 30 years. And it’s just really an exciting time that all citizens can now be part of space, all Americans can have a place in space. And again, you have the individuals who wanna go to space. Is it space tourism? Is it mining on the moon or Mars? Is it to build a Mars colony? So, you have those aspects, but you also have the individuals who wanna take the technology and create healthcare advances. Again, they’re now discovering cancer technology to help fight cancer through space technology. They’re using technology from space to do surgeries on children and babies now. So, the technology that’s there is helping us have a better life here on earth. And so, for those who wanna go to space, that’s awesome. It’s gonna be an exciting time. But for those who are looking for opportunities to have an impact on humanity and the quality of our lives, there’s a great opportunity there too, whether you’re in agriculture, the Internet of Things, manufacturing, healthcare, education, there’s just an opportunity for everyone to find a passion and follow that passion to success.

Christina: That’s really interesting. So, you’ve seen this shift. You’ve really been at the forefront of it. And now, at the Space Foundation, you’re sort of thinking about some of these programs related to encouraging the continued growth and diversity in education. So, tell me a little bit about that.

Shelli: So, our five-year plan is really to focus again on that workforce development and economic opportunity. And workforce development is the whole workforce pipeline. How are we inspiring kids? The earliest age as possible, especially for girls and minorities because they self-select out of going into a technology area. We also look at, what are we doing for the current workforce? What about the workforce that is unemployed. We in America right now have more job openings than we have applicants. And the mismatch is because of skills. So, if we can be out there helping to partner with community colleges to re-skill that workforce, up-skill that workforce, and put them into intern programs, that’s gonna help fill those jobs and help those individuals be part of this global space economy. And then, again, it’s about how are we reaching out to minorities, and women, and veterans. We just did a program in Youngstown, Ohio on Tuesday. We had 60 participants. Over 80% were either students, women, minorities, or veterans. And I’m sure you can imagine, normally, when you have a workshop for a day, people come and go, and by the end of the day, everybody’s gone. Everybody was still there. Everybody was excited. Everybody was telling us about their technology and how they wanted to bring it forward. So, we were able to reach 60 individuals. And the great part is, that is one part of our program to help America bring more minorities and diversity in the supply chain or the entrepreneurial area. But we have webinars on our website as well. If you go to our website, we have 15 webinars. They’re free to look at that talk about the global space economy, how you can be part of it, IT, space law because believe it or not, we’ve got space lawyers. And even for the K through 12, we just partnered with Peanuts’ Snoopy. And we came out with 10 lesson plans for teachers that can bring that into the classroom. So, we’ve got both ends of the spectrum. If you’re K through 12, we’ve got Peanuts’ Snoopy on our website for you. And if you’re an entrepreneur or you think you wanna be an entrepreneur, we’ve got webinars for you. So, there’s something for everyone at the Space Foundation.

Christina: It’s great to see the diversity and the global… So, when you’re referring to the global space economy, I think that is important because you were mentioning earlier that at the Space Foundation conference, you have many, many, many countries coming to showcase what they’re doing. And that’s super interesting, and we wanna encourage, you know, collaboration. I mean, it really is a global pursuit and endeavor. But at the same time, you know, we want to see America play a leading role in this global pursuit. So, tell me a little bit about that. Like, what you’re seeing, as you see more and more countries get in there and how this is a global opportunity for people.

Shelli: Our Space Symposium is a global premier space event. And when it started, we had one customer, Air Force Space Command and industry. And we brought those two together. Four hundred people were at that first one. Now, the global space economy… We had 15,000 participants and 50 countries there. We had about 17 heads of space agencies. So, what that means is like when you think of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, his counterparts at 16 countries were at Symposium. You have the German space agency displaying, the Japanese. So, you have everybody coming in to talk about things because space is really a global pursuit. It is the International Space Station. We are not going to the moon alone. I mean, you’re looking at Japan doing parts and pieces. The United Arab Emirates wants to have a Mars colony in 100 years. So, it’s really a planetary, human, mankind pursuit of space. And the other part is it’s education. And every country is concerned about education. Every parent is concerned about education. So, space and education are two things that unite the planet to work together. So, it’s really diplomacy and it’s an opportunity to work together for the betterment of humanity.

Christina: Yeah, I think that’s a really great note to sort of wrap up on, that space is an opportunity to unite the planet and unite humanity. I think that’s a very nice thought and something that I’d like to carry forward and I hope everybody will carry forward too. Any last thoughts, Shelli, that you’d like to share?

Shelli: Well, as I said, it’s all about partnerships. Well, we look for partners who wanna partner with us, whether they’re colleges, university, government agencies, individuals who are like-minded, who wanna continue to help the workforce and create economic development, which helps all of us here on Earth. So, we just look for more partners and ask you all to join us.

Christina: Thank you so much for talking with me today. This has been a wonderful conversation. It’s super exciting, very inspiring to think about the opportunities for kids and the future, and all the great things that we’re gonna be able to see. And, you know, thanks for being in this leadership role to encourage so much education and training around it, and really bringing these opportunities to entrepreneurs and the next generation of space enthusiasts.

Shelli: Thank you so much. And it’s a pleasure being here and I look forward to talking to you again.

Christina: Space technology is about more than getting us to the moon and Mars. It’s also about helping us lead better lives here on Earth. Thanks to Shelli Brunswick for talking with me today. Until next time, this is Christina Elson in “The Inc. Tank.”

You can subscribe to “The Inc. Tank” on Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, YouTube, and Apple Podcasts. Visit for a full transcript of this episode. A special thank you to the Kauffman Foundation for their support. From the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, thank you for joining us in “The Inc. Tank.”