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  • Writer's pictureGuillermo Sohnlein

Genealogy of My Space Journey

By far the most common question I've been asked over the past 20 years is "How did you get into doing 'outer space' as a non-astronaut?" Well, honestly, I got a lot of help from a lot of people!

It Is Not Possible to Have "Too Many" Role Models

Toward the end of 2001, I decided that I wanted to spend the next 20+ years of my life dedicated to pursuing my lifelong passion for extending humanity's presence into outer space. Since I was not a scientist or engineer, I wasn't sure exactly how I would do this. Even worse, I knew nothing about the space industry and I knew nobody in the space industry. I figured the best thing to do was to network like crazy, meet as many people as possible, and hope that something popped up. This led me down a path where I met so many truly amazing inspirational visionaries that I am humbled to be able to call some of them acquaintances, colleagues, or even friends. However, every one of them contributed to my incredibly fulfilling journey ... that is still going!

Start With "Why?"

In part, this [admittedly way too long!] post is a tribute to my personal heroes and influencers.

In part, it is a promotion for all of their ongoing achievements. If you don't know these people already, I encourage you to check them out, connect with them, and let them inspire you with their passion and life's work.

However ...

The main purpose of this post is to give hope to anyone reading it that often the best way to achieve your dreams is to reach out and ask for help. You will be pleasantly surprised by how many people--some of whom you may consider "un-reachable"--will be more than happy to lend a hand.

Once Upon a Time ...

Having recently moved to a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, directly from Silicon Valley at the end of the Internet Boom, for me the most obvious first step into the space industry seemed to be SpaceVest, at the time the only space-focused venture capital firm in the world and it was based 15 minutes from my new home. I connected with one of their associates, Roscoe Moore, who agreed to meet me for lunch and then later introduced me to the founder and managing partner, John Higginbotham.

John was a veteran technology executive who not only managed his VC firm but also served as Chairman of the Space Foundation, one of the world's premier space education and advocacy organizations. When he learned of my tech startup background and my desire to pursue a career in space, John gave me undoubtedly the best advice anyone has ever given me:

"If you want to work in space, you have to hang out with space people. Why? Well, if you try talking space with non-space people, they will think you're crazy. If you talk space with space people, they will push you to new heights."

That's probably not an exact quote, but that's how it has stuck in my mind for almost 20 years. I don't think John realized then what he had done, but he permanently changed the trajectory of my life. He and Roscoe introduced me to another SpaceVest team member, Kevin Leclaire, and eventually to Lon Levin, co-founder of XM Satellite Radio, and Elliot Pulham, President of the Space Foundation. And everything just snowballed from there!

Cast of Thousands (almost literally!)

When I originally conceived of this post, I imagined creating an actual chronological genealogy of my space journey. However, I was quickly overwhelmed by the vast number of people to include, as well as the gross inadequacy of my failing memory trying to remember when everyone fit into the timeline. Therefore, I ultimately decided to simply create a general listing, broken down into some major groups.

NOTE #1. I am 100% certain that I omitted many important folks, so please know that this was obviously completely inadvertent. If you find yourself missing from the list, please reach out and I will gladly add you. I look forward to hearing from you!

NOTE #2. Almost everyone on this list is so versatile that they defy being placed in a single "bucket". In fact, many of them have held numerous positions throughout their varied careers, so where they find themselves today is usually not how I first interacted with them. However, I placed them in the role where they influenced me the most, even if that may not be how they view themselves.


International Association of Space Entrepreneurs ("IASE")

There were only 5 of us at our first meeting in 2003, but this quickly grew into a diverse team of Washington DC area volunteers who in turn fostered an online entrepreneurial community of over 2,000 members. Our first in-person event in 2004 drew over a hundred attendees to watch Miles O'Brien interview Eric Anderson onstage. We later transferred the site to the Space Frontier Foundation, which sunsetted the program in 2014.


Space Angels Network

When our global IASE community identified "early stage capital" as the most critical gap in the "NewSpace" ecosystem, a small group of us launched a space-focused angel investor group in 2006. Today, Space Angels is part of the Space Capital family of companies, spearheaded by Chad Anderson, who has turned it into the world's most active early-stage space investment organization. Along the way, there were SO MANY incredible co-founders (Burton Lee, Joe Landon, Eric Anderson), volunteer staff, advisors, partners, and of course investor members, especially our four Founding Members (Esther Dyson, Stephen Fleming, David S. Rose, Ed Tuck).



I cannot continue this "genealogy" in any sort of chronological order without first stopping to acknowledge the incredible astronauts who have already been to space and kindly shared their experiences with me. Every one of them is impressive in their own right, but especially my friend, Scott Parazynski, whose boundless intellectual curiosity about the universe both drives his passion and secures humility in the face of all that is left to be discovered and understood.



My earliest networking efforts included attending space conferences and introducing myself to the people pushing the envelope of developing a global private space economy. This corps of tireless "advocates" have heavily inspired my ongoing journey. Foremost among them have been Rick Tumlinson and Peter Diamandis, who are both forces of nature using their passion and eloquence to will humanity's multi-planet future into existence. Also, I continue to be impressed by the work of Kellie Gerardi, my kindred spirit forging an influential space career as a non-engineer/non-scientist (after all, it's "not necessarily rocket science"!).



Now we get to the core of my focus for almost two decades: the visionary startup founders at the forefront of our new Space Age. Leading the charge are Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, both of whom are as inspirational in one-on-one conversations as they are on public stages. Since I am personally interested in getting *humans* off-planet, I have always enjoyed my conversations with Eric Anderson, Taber MacCallum, and Jane Poynter. However, my favorite discussions on this topic have been with Bas Lansdorp, who was audacious enough to create a bold venture designed to take humans on a one-way trip to Mars! In the meantime, I continue to be impressed by the combination of vision and execution from a new generation of space entrepreneurs like Jason Andrews, Natalya Bailey, Payam Banazadeh, Daniel Faber, and Peter Platzer, among so many others.


Investors - Angels

Visionary entrepreneurs cannot build their ventures without equally visionary investors trusting them with their own money in the very early stages of their companies. Many of the individual investors I have met over the years are already mentioned in other categories throughout this post. However, a special nod has to go out to my friend Dylan Taylor, who has spent almost literally every day of the past few years doing whatever he could to support the space entrepreneur community, either with his own capital or with his professional network, business partnerships, personal mentorship, or media outreach.


Investors - VC / PE / Incubators / Accelerators

When we started Space Angels Network, we specifically chose the word "Network" because we knew that space entrepreneurs were going to need much more financial support beyond individual angel investors. Fortunately, a growing number of institutional investors have jumped into the sector. First among them was John Higginbotham, who founded SpaceVest in the early 1990s and kickstarted everything, included my own space career. Within the more "mainstream" VC community, there is no one more passionate about space than Steve Jurvetson, who is both inspirationally visionary and also financially pragmatic.


Technologists & Scientists

This is the group of folks that always intimidates me, because they are all so incredibly intelligent and I have a very tough time keeping up with their bright minds. However, they are the technology innovators and the rocket scientists who form the core of everything related to space. I have the highest respect for every one of these individuals, but I have especially enjoyed getting to know Alan Stern, whose accomplishments leading the New Horizons project are surpassed only by his unbounded enthusiasm for exploring the vastness of space.


Executives - CEOs/Presidents/COOs

While there are many founders who can also lead their own ventures as CEOs, often it takes a more seasoned executive--or someone with a complementary skillset--to take the company to the next level. In the space industry, the gold standard has been Gwynne Shotwell, who has helped Elon Musk build SpaceX into the success it is today. One of my favorite interactions was with my friend Tom Barton, who served as COO of Planet even though he had no prior experience in the space industry. When I teased him about a non-space guy heading up a space venture, he gave me a seriously confused look and said, "Planet is not a space company, it's a data company." Yes!


Executives - Other

None of the founders, technologists, or CEOs/COOs would be anywhere without the talented individuals making up their management teams, whether experts in business development, sales, finance, legal, operations, strategy, marketing, or whatever. These people are the grinders who actually get things done and make their ventures successful. I am especially grateful for all of the guidance, wisdom, and insights I received over the years from Rich Pournelle, who was one of the first people I met early in my space journey.



Outer space captures the imagination of the general public in ways that few other topics can, but it takes a special kind of storyteller to do it justice. I have been fortunate to meet so many creative professionals dedicated as much to the promotion of humanity's role in space as they are to their own craft. I am especially grateful for my conversations with long-time journalists like Alan Boyle and Jeff Foust, best-selling authors like David Meerman Scott (non-fiction) and Neil Stephenson (fiction), and next-generation social media standouts like my fellow explorer Sam Cossman. Most of all, for 18+ years I have been inspired by the work of Miles O'Brien, who is as knowledgeable, dedicated, and professional as he is inspiring and respected.



Although space has been the exclusive purview of a handful of national space programs for decades, it has been quickly transitioning to much more of a global private space economy during the few years that I have been involved and active. Most of this transition has been made possible by passionate and visionary public servants willing to innovate within large agencies to forge new relationships with private industry. Coming from my Silicon Valley roots, these conversations have been the most challenging for me personally, but there are many individuals continuing to advocate from within. I have been most inspired by Pete Worden, who not only pushed tirelessly during his time at NASA Ames but also continued his work post-NASA at the Breakthrough Prize Foundation.


Sea-Space Connections

In 2009, my career took a bit of a left turn away from space when I moved to Seattle to pursue my other life passion for ocean exploration and co-found OceanGate, a company that builds and operates deep sea crewed submersibles. It did not take me long to recognize the obvious synergies between ocean exploration and space exploration, and I spent several years diving into those sea-space connections (yes, pun intended). I found many kindred spirits in the ocean world, but two in particular helped me forge my path forward. First, there was my OceanGate co-founder, Stockton Rush, a fellow frustrated astronaut who has dedicated the past 10+ years of his life to helping humanity learn more about the darkest depths of our own planet. Second, I have been honored to know Don Walsh, one of the first two humans to reach Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth, and also one of the two sponsors for my admission as a member of The Explorers Club.



With so much science and engineering underpinning everything about space, it is no wonder that academia plays such an enormous role, both in research and also in educating new space professionals. Many of the folks listed in other sections of this post also have academic connections, but regardless everyone relies on universities around the world for all of the knowledge and human capital they provide. I was most inspired by a particular conversation with Andy Aldrin, who surprised me (given that he grew up immersed in space due to his father's historical role as the second human to walk on the Moon) with his conviction that he never wanted to go into space, stating that he knows exactly how special Earth is and wants very much to stay safe and sound right here. I found that to be such a refreshing and insightful perspective!


Professional Services

Any entrepreneur who has run their own business knows that you cannot succeed without a reliable team of external professionals with specific expertise in law, finance, HR, etc. It is even more imperative in the space industry to find individuals familiar with the intricacies of the business environment within which we operate. Most notably, I have learned so much from the direct and indirect teachings of Rick Citron and Hoyt Davidson, two professionals who have provided decades of top-quality guidance to so many space entrepreneurs and investors.



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