A Life Working to Expand Humanity’s Move into the Next Frontier
Abhishek Tripathi, UC Berkeley’s Director of Mission Control, on his career working in aerospace & thoughts on what’s to come in aerospace innovation
Back in March of this year, I was connected to Abhi Tripathi. Part of my role as Senior Director at Berkeley SkyDeck is to meet potential advisors who might be able to join our network and round out the type of expertise our founders can access. In past years, we see some 50+ inbound inquiries every quarter from folks keen to join the network, and in the three years I’ve been at SkyDeck, the network has grown from 120 to 412 people. For me, one of my favorite parts of managing the advisor and mentor network is meeting insanely interesting people. For today’s blog, I’ve chosen to feature Abhi not only because I find his career so fascinating, but also because so many people around the country and the world are tuning in to what is happening with advancements in space technology. With the constant rocket launches at SpaceX & elsewhere, the world is paying closer attention to what is happening.
In August of 2019, UC Berkeley announced it had partnered with the NASA Ames Center to develop 36.2 acres of land near Moffett Field with the intention of building out a mixed R&D, education and housing site for faculty and students focused on aerospace. This commitment taken in context is pretty stellar. There’s no question that the road ahead in this aerospace research and innovation is on an accelerating trajectory. For those same reasons, SkyDeck announced that same year that we would establish an Aero Track in our program to nurture innovation in that space, and we invited world class experts like Abhi to join the advisor network. Read on to hear some of the interesting insights Abhi had to share about what it’s like working in the aerospace industry.
Sibyl: Tell us about your role as the Spaceflight leader and the current Director of Mission Operations at UC Berkeley. What do you do in your role?
Abhi: My primary current role is serving as the Director of Mission Operations at the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Lab (SSL). The SSL has almost 300 engineers, scientists and researchers. Our mission operations center is controlling 7 spacecraft currently in orbit, 2 of which are around the Moon. As the Director of Mission Ops I have responsibility for ensuring that the team has what it needs to operate and — in the case of any anomalies — troubleshoot or safeguard the spacecraft. We are also actively working on 3 other missions due to launch by 2025, including a twin spacecraft mission to Mars. Besides this main responsibility, I am also the project manager for another exciting potential mission, which is still in the concept phase.
Sibyl: What inspired you to pursue a career in space technology/engineering/exploration?
Abhi: I wanted to be an astronaut since the age of three when I saw the original Star Trek movie at a drive-in theater. Everything in my life that followed was for the love of space exploration. My first time standing in a NASA Mission Control Room was at the age of 22 during an internship. At that moment I knew I could have a great career doing what I loved most.
Sibyl: I’m going to geek out and say, I, too, wanted to become an astronaut when I was younger so I really admire that you stuck to your guns and did it. While you didn’t become an astronaut, you still went on to pursue exciting opportunities at SpaceX and NASA. What have been highlights of your journey so far?
Abhi: The highlight of my career so far has been the Dragon Cargo Demo 2 mission, the SpaceX vehicle that first got to the ISS. We were all shocked that it worked. I personally worked an untold number of hours on both coasts to help make it happen, including well past midnight for weeks at a time at Cape Canaveral. We were all giddy with excitement and exhausted when it was over. I played a lead role in getting that vehicle certified (approved) by NASA, and did it faster than any other nation or company. My last mission at SpaceX included getting the first two NASA astronauts to the ISS and back safely. When the two astronauts safely touched down in the water, I knew ten years worth of work had paid off. I had worked closely with them for several years. I left SpaceX a week later. Another highlight included riding on Elon Musk’s jet 500 ft above the water in the Bermuda Triangle looking for rocket debris. But that’s another story…
Sibyl: Ha, okay! I’m going to have to follow up with you about the Elon Musk story. What do you perceive as the next set of greatest challenges the aerospace industry will face in the coming decade?
Abhi: I think the aerospace industry is at an inflection point. Now is an amazing time (maybe the best since the early 60s) to be working at a space start-up, founding a space start-up, or just graduating from college with an engineering degree. The cost per kilogram of putting something in space is dropping at a pace that now allows the “launching” of entirely new business ideas and models. The challenge will be to find the best products that can take advantage of that. Right now, too many start-ups are concentrating on how (e.g. rockets) to put something into space and not enough are concentrating on what to put up in space and why and how it will improve people’s lives in a sustainable way. If we don’t move to the latter questions soon, our gains will be short-lived.
Sibyl: Given the recent development and growing interest in the aerospace industry over the past several years, what do you find most interesting about the trajectory in which aerospace technology is developing?
Abhi: What I find most interesting about the trajectory I see in the aerospace industry is that it is finally being modernized by some basic ideas and business concepts that have worked well in other industries. This includes rapid/iterative design, customer engagement, and competition between many entrants. Just 20 years ago, none of this existed. Until the last ten years you had a few monopolies that did slow development and whose progress was completely hidden from the general population. Now, you have thousands that watch (online) all kinds of esoteric engineering progress made by some companies. That really starts to inspire people and more ideas.
Sibyl: Having worked at SpaceX, can you tell us what it was like for you to work at one of the hottest space tech companies in the world today?
Abhi: SpaceX was an incredibly dynamic environment. The employees there like to joke that your career advances in dog years because in one year there, you pick up and use the skills you might have in seven years elsewhere. It is a very flat organization with limited bureaucracy and extreme empowerment of the individual. They assume that you are sharp enough to figure out any new thing that needs doing. However, it isn’t just a job. It’s a lifestyle and an identity for some. Everyone needs to be honest with themselves about what they need during different times in their career, and it might not be best to remain in one place for many years like it was for previous generations. When you work that hard, you need time to replenish your creativity and your body. People want to work at SpaceX (and some of the new start-ups) because they realize that doing meaningful work and really getting into the “flow” of what you are doing, with amazingly talented co-workers, is more important (at least for periods) than your salary or your work life balance.
Sibyl: UC Berkeley is working with NASA to build out a satellite campus at Moffett Field focusing on aerospace R&D. From your standpoint, what are the most interesting aspects of aerospace that could use focused R&D and why?
Abhi: I just finished co-chairing a task force that asked “what should Berkeley Aerospace focus on in the future,” with the Moffett Field site as a backdrop. Our task force made recommendations to the Vice Chancellor for Research. I will let the VCRs office take the lead on discussing, but our recommendations leveraged the things Berkeley is already good at (including building and operating space missions, computing, and urban air mobility) and also paid attention to what our region and state needs. Sensor development, autonomous operations, and turning aircraft and satellite imagery into something actionable are all good areas for R&D. I think the future of aerospace at Berkeley is bright.
Sibyl: What is the best piece of advice you could tell an aspiring UC Berkeley student who is interested in aerospace technology/engineering?
Abhi: The best advice I can give a Berkeley student is to find a multidisciplinary project (including student-led project) at Berkeley that interests you, and to join that team. In the job market, lots of graduates have degrees from top schools. But not everyone made time during undergrad (even at the expense of keeping a high GPA) to devote time to a team project where they learned technical and leadership skills. That is a differentiator when top companies are recruiting. Also, read about the latest space and space start up news. Get inspired by projects the world is working on, and think about what skills you need to acquire to help.
Sibyl: As a SkyDeck advisor in the aerospace track, what advice do you have for aerospace startups thinking about applying to SkyDeck? What are key indicators you look for when evaluating an aerospace startup?
Abhi: The key thing I look at is whether the company is following some trend or if they are looking to set a trend. Followers need to work a lot harder to differentiate their product. Advisors see right through all the buzz words. When someone is pitching an idea where the idea is original and you can see they have a clear passion about it, that is the strong indicator for me. I also look to see how committed the team is. This can’t be a side hustle. Is the team really all-in? Are they honest with themselves of where they want to ultimately end up? Are they building or planning? I am biased toward startups that are testing something, even if there are test failures.
Abhishek Tripathi is an Aerospace Engineer and Micropaleontologist who spent 10 years with NASA in Houston, before spending another 10 years helping SpaceX achieve human spaceflight. He is currently the Director of Mission Operations at the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory where he is responsible for operating 7 spacecraft currently in orbit, and helping to develop several others that UCB plans to launch in the next few years.
Sibyl Chen is the Senior Director of Program at Berkeley SkyDeck, UC Berkeley’s premier tech accelerator. Learn more at skydeck.berkeley.edu