Innovator Q&A: William Pomerantz
William Pomerantz, Vice President for Special Projects at Virgin Orbit.
Because I have to: What is your favorite “space” movie or television series? And did it influence your career choice?
Growing up, I devoured every bit of science fiction I could get my hands on. The Star Wars films held a special place in my heart, but I would bet that I checked out every SciFi book in the library, whether good or bad. I’m sure that having all of those SciFi ideas swirling around in my teenage head had something to do with the fact that I now work in a rocket factory! If I had to pick one work of art that had a direct influence on my career, though, it would almost certainly be the film Apollo 13. And I can get even more specific: it’s the scene where the team is challenged to make a square carbon dioxide filter fit into the slot designed for a round filter. The combination of the awe-inspiring majesty of space, the indefatigable creativity of humanity, and the spirit of placing teamwork above personal ego was (and still is!) intensely appealing.
Your company has proactively sought out diverse candidates (and you personally through the Thurgood Marshall College Fund), why?
Space exploration is an incredibly challenging field, and to succeed in what we do; we need brilliant brains. In my experience, brilliant minds come in all different sorts of bodies. It behooves us as an industry to go out and find, foster, and recruit people of every demographic in a never-ending quest to get the smartest possible people.
On top of that, I work at a company that is trying to be disruptive even within this challenging field. So, on top of the insatiable hunger for intelligence, we need to find people with new ideas and new approaches. If we were to confine our search to the same kind of people at the same type of schools, we would likely get more of the same ideas. So, we seek instead to build a team that's a healthy mix of battle-tested veterans and new entrants—which means that we desperately need historically underrepresented minorities to join us in pursuit a common goal.
On this front: I'm proud of the work that Virgin has done—and intensely proud of the work done by programs such as the Brooke Owens Fellowship Program, which I had the honor of co-founding alongside with two amazing women (Lori Garver and Cassie Kloberdanz Lee) who are space pioneers. This effort is about helping improve our industry as a whole. If some of our outreach helps make this industry more welcoming and more appealing to someone who goes on to work at one of our competitors, I still view that as a win. In our industry, it is true that, as the old saying goes, a rising ride floats all ships.
And please allow me to conclude with three magic words: we are hiring.
What is the coolest thing about space, space travel, or space stuff?
Oh my goodness, how much time do we have? The thing about space, it is infinite—and thus full of intriguing facts and surprises. I'll throw out a few quick fun facts.
As of today, only 560 people from 53 nations have traveled to space. That means that every person reading this has had experiences that no one else has ever done, shared or experienced in space. If you've ever wanted to be in the record books, going to space is still a great way to do it.
Space is for more than just astronauts and engineers. If those two fields are your calling, that's great—both are incredibly rewarding fields—but if not, there is still a place for you in the industry. Jobs like "space lawyer," "rocket salesperson," and "space apparel designer" are real things, not just the realm of science fiction.
And lastly: every probe humans have ever built to go beyond Mars has worked. Things designed and touched by human hands have successfully visited asteroids, comets, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto. Something that people built with their hands is currently more than 13 billion miles away from planet Earth. To get a sense of just how far that is, you could go all the way around the Earth and back a half a million times, and still, you would not have gone 13 billion miles.
You were part of the team to start Virgin Orbit—a Virgin Galactic spinout—which is a small satellite launch company. According to NASA, Smallsats "have the potential to be transformational." What are Virgin Orbit's short- and long-term uses for smallsats?
We are in essence a transportation company—we don't design or operate the satellites, but instead, we take our customers' satellites, and we carry them to orbit safely, reliably, and inexpensively. We're providing launches for what I believe is the most exciting part of the satellite community now: the innovators around the world who are building smaller, cheaper satellites. While they may not cram in as many features as bigger satellites do, small satellites are appealing because they can be built quickly and on modest budgets. That's good for big space agencies like NASA, which are perpetually being asked to do more with less funding. But what's even more exciting is that this opens up space to new players: when satellites are so affordable that every university, non-profit organization, and nation that could benefit from space can try to build and launch one, that's a total game changer.
We're also a launch company that is pretty much entirely focused on planet Earth. Other companies and projects are focused on the Moon, Mars, and other places like that—which is awesome. But, as our founder likes to say, after taking a look around our celestial "neighborhood," it's pretty clear that Earth is the best home around. For the most parts, the satellites we launch to space will turn back and provide services to Earth, whether that is helping to monitor our changing climate, providing internet to the billions of people who live offline, or whatever else.
Besides your wife, who would you go into space with for a day?
You are putting me in a tough spot! My wife—who is a brilliant Latina immigrant, by the way—is an engineer who works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, helping lead the Mars Curiosity mission. She is far more deserving of a ticket to space than I am! So clearly, she is the answer.
If you force me to be with someone else, going into space with my boss, Sir Richard Branson, would be tremendous fun. But Richard doesn't need my help to get to there. So, I'd probably like to travel with one of my Brooke Owens Fellowship co-founders or with one of our 36 (and counting) fantastic Fellows!