Editor's Key Takeaways
- If you want to be a builder, start building mini projects in school. Project-based clubs are the best way to start as a beginner (e.g. Penn Aerospace Club recruits beginner and advanced students alike every semester)!
- Take the time to talk to recruiters and people in the industry. Not only will this expose you to the industry and job, you can practice your conversation skills.
- Connecting "why" you are doing something to your overall mission of helping society can help you focus in on the careers that matter most.
Marcos graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a BASc in Aerospace in 2007 and from the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2015 with a master's degree in Systems Engineering. SpaceX is the leading space transport company founded by University of Pennsylvania alumni, Elon Musk.
Editor: Marcos and I worked together on the Penn Aerospace Club board as Directors from 2015–2016. That year, he led our Space Balloon team to the national round. Besides the fact that Marcos is a straight-up genius, he never hesitated to help out with my endless stream of space recruitment questions. His inspirational work ethic is a major reason why I wanted to feature him.
Tell me about your background leading up to this role? How did you recruit for it?
When I was an undergrad studying Aerospace Engineering, I took part in quite a few projects that involved dealing with actual space hardware. This included helping build a small satellite that was actually deployed in space. After that, I spent some time teaching physics and chemistry, but then went back to grad school for a Masters in Systems Engineering at Penn. While at Penn, I continued working on aerospace related projects by joining the Penn Aerospace Club and was a project lead for the High Altitude Balloon Team.
I always wanted the opportunity to work at a leading edge tech company, so when the recruiters came to the school for a presentation, I had to go meet them. After the presentation ended, I stayed for a while and spoke with each of the presenters about my background. This led to my resume getting recommended internally and subsequently, to my interview.
Why did you choose SpaceX, and why did you want to go into the NewSpace industry?
Editor's note: The NewSpace industry is a result of the recent trend of privatization in the space industry by startups.
Like most space geeks, I grew up learning about the monumental achievements of NASA over the last fifty years. From the race to the moon, to the Shuttle Program, and finally to maintaining the International Space Station. The technical achievement was enormous, but at the same time, in more recent years, I have begun thinking about how while NASA can still achieve so much, the space industry as a whole is hindered by the fact that so much of our advancement here in the United States hinges on one major entity. Wherever NASA goes, space goes.
While at UT Austin, I attended a presentation by Burt Rutan, not long after he completed his historic suborbital spaceflight to win the Ansari X Prize. Afterwards, I was invigorated to learn about what the private space industry can do. Thus began my interest in NewSpace, where a private company could potentially gather the resources and technical know-how to complete missions that up until now could only be completed by the leading nations of this planet.
What can current students look forward to in terms of changes the NewSpace industry will be facing in the next five years?
In the next five years this industry will be undergoing a revolution. In the realm of small satellites, "cubesats" are becoming a dominant force, both for small inexpensive orbital experiments as well as for commercial uses. Reusable launch vehicles are already being made as we speak, and once those technologies become more commonplace, the price to go to space will be reduced dramatically and allow the creation of a true space economy. The advent of cheaper and more powerful launch vehicles will allow for more complex and far reaching missions into deep space.
From planetary landers, to planetary colonizers, to interstellar probes, science and humans will be reaching out and literally touching every part of this solar system in the future.
In the next five years there will be manned missions to other celestial bodies being planned. It is an exciting time to be a part of this industry and it will be a great time to learn and be a part of this revolution.
What soft and technical skills were most useful? Which of those have you developed while on the job?
It really depends on where you end up on the job, but most engineering type jobs look for demonstrated technical skills. You want to have shown through projects, in class, or in extracurricular activities, that you are able to work on a real engineering challenge. This may be via building a satellite, a racecar, or a software system. That's the easiest way to both demonstrate your knowledge, and also learn a lot about how to apply everything you've learned in class.
I personally have to use soft skills a lot. I work with a lot of different people, both from a technical and non-technical respect. Having good soft skills allows you to communicate your ideas effectively to work better with a team. There aren't very many engineering positions where you are working by yourself.
In today's world, every system is highly integrated and the technical must meet with both the design factors and human factors. The soft skills help bridge those gaps.
What is the biggest motivating factor about working at SpaceX?
There is a really big sense of purpose where I work. We are working to change the industry and even the world. We have a very solid goal and everyone at the company understands that and pushes to achieve it. It is very rewarding to work so hard and actually be able to see the fruits of your labor take shape.
What is a reality about the job that students should be aware of before seriously considering it?
The reality is that interesting work is usually very hard work. Most students want to be a part of some new and exciting company, but along with that must come hard work. Accomplishing amazing things isn't easy and that's why it's amazing. That being said, nothing is too hard and in my opinion, the harder the task the greater the reward.
What would you recommend to young Penn students who are looking into a career like this?
My biggest recommendation is to get involved with some kind of project. Projects give you the experience you need. It is very important to take a large role in a project and truly contribute to its completion. It makes the transition from school to work much easier, and it also makes interviews a breeze because you have so much to talk about.
Find a project you're passionate about and just pursue it whole-heartedly.
There are so many student-run projects at Penn that it's hard to name just one, but I really advise to join one where you can get your hands dirty.
As for exploration outside of Penn, I would just keep an ear open for any conferences, talks, or meetings that have anything to do with what you are interested in. Go to as many as you can and talk to as many people as you can. Any one of them could be the lead you need to get that awesome job. Even those conversations that don't lead to anything meaningful are great practice sessions for your interview and soft skills.
Disclaimers: The views presented here are solely those of the interviewee. They do not represent SpaceX or any of the other individuals or institutions named above.