Dr. Michaelyn Thomas is the Head of Affordability at Virgin Orbit in Long Beach, California. It is her job to make rocket science affordable! Virgin Orbit is on a mission to democratize and open space for everyone by providing dedicated, responsive, and affordable launch services for small satellite customers. Since starting her aerospace career in 2007, her unique leadership roles have spanned across finance and program management for government and commercial space programs. Michaelyn holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science with a Minor degree in Russian language, a Master of Business Administration degree, and a Doctorate degree in Organizational Leadership. Her dissertation is entitled, Exploring the Advancement of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Executive Management Positions in the Aerospace Industry: Strategies Identified by Women that Enable Success. Her most recent publication, “Empowering Women to take on STEM Leadership Positions within the Aerospace Industry,” appeared in the November 2018 issue of STEM for Women Magazine.

Michaelyn, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into your current role?

Ever since I was a little girl, I knew that I wanted to be in the space industry either as an astronaut or working on space programs. However, I learned very early on the traditional science and engineering path was not right for me. Instead of conforming to the paradigm, I let my passion guide me, and that ultimately led me to a successful career working on many space programs in the aerospace industry. My passion paved the way for me to achieve an executive leadership position in just a short 10 years after starting my professional career in space. 

Academically, I have a very unusual background for a space professional, although, that is what allowed me to work my dream positions in the aerospace industry. I have my doctorate in organizational leadership, a master’s degree in business administration, and a bachelor’s of the arts degree in political science public law with a Russian language minor degree. Each degree helped me achieve the positions I desired and served me very well in the business I love most. I have had the pleasure of devoting my entire professional career in the aerospace industry, primarily development space systems, and the positions I have held consist of contracts and pricing administrator, material cost manager, lead cost/price analyst, lead finance cost estimating and pricing specialist, program management business operations specialist, chief of staff to the vice president of space programs, and now I am the head of affordability at Virgin Orbit. 

As the head of affordability, I get to utilize my diverse academic and professional experience to execute the duties of my job. My primary focus is making rocket science affordable through leveraging best practices and new and innovative ways of thinking. This role requires a unique blend of finance expertise, program/project management, effective communication, “out-of-the-box” thinking, and inclusive leadership. All teams have a stake in affordability, and it is truly a pleasure to cross-functionally lead brilliant teammates across diverse organizations.

What was your very first experience with 3D Printing?

Surprisingly, my very first experience with 3D printing was at a house party with my doctoral classmates. One of my dear friends has a 3D printer in her game room, and we started printing game pieces. I really enjoyed the speed and ease of use of the machines. I thought it was the coolest thing EVER!

Could you explain furthermore what Virgin Orbit is and the services that you are providing? 

Virgin Orbit is on a mission to democratize and open space for everyone by providing dedicated, responsive, and affordable launch services for small satellite customers. We have a mobile launchpad which is a modified Boeing 747 aircraft named Cosmic Girl, and we are building our LauncherOne system which is a rocket that combines proven technology with state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques. 

Tell us about the Teammates for Women Empowerment at Virgin Orbit. How did it come about and why do you think it’s important?

On International Women’s Day in 2018, I delivered a keynote address to our Virgin Orbit workforce on the importance of women advancement in the aerospace industry. I was nervous (which I am never nervous when speaking) because this keynote address was rooted in my doctoral research which took me years to develop. I discussed the barriers women tend to face in the aerospace industry and strategies that enable advancement. After my presentation, a group of employees engaged me and kept the discussion going. Over the course of several months, we brainstormed many ways to get a company-recognized group going, and Teammates for Women Empowerment was formed with the dedicated support of our senior staff. I have the pleasure of serving as the executive sponsor of this wonderful and important group. 

Teammates for Women Empowerment is an inclusive, employee-led group that promotes positive change through a shared vision of women empowerment in the workplace. Teammates for Women Empowerment has a robust operating rhythm, managed by a small group of dedicated employees in efforts to promote professional growth and development, inclusion, and overall employee happiness for all. The group also aims to create a trusted environment for employees to practice and learn leadership skills, as well as share experiences, ideas, and strategies that enable career success and professional development in the aerospace industry. It’s about identifying and breaking down barriers through collaboration and education.

Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company or your career to share with us?

Everything about Virgin Orbit is absolutely fun. I have created some amazing memories and life-long professional relationships. I wake up every morning thanking my lucky stars because I never thought I would be able to work my dream executive management job in my early thirties. Our team is extremely dedicated and works very hard to achieve important program milestones, and we also know how to have fun with each other. The camaraderie we share as a Virgin Orbit team is so special and unique that it’s impossible not to love what we do.

Have you run into any challenges from being a woman in Aerospace/3D printing? 

Unfortunately, yes. Most of the challenges I have faced pertain to unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. Early into my career, I did not have the confidence, guidance, or mentorship that I have now, and I was unsure how to handle most of these situations. Because I was unsure, I just dealt with it which is the wrong thing to do. It wasn’t until I received some expert mentorship that I learned how to navigate these murky waters with professionalism. I learned how to politely “call-it-out” and I used unfavorable situations I experienced as “teachable moments” for the person demonstrating unconscious bias and/or micro-aggressions. As one example of this, one of my male co-workers would routinely interrupt me in meetings while I was presenting. I quickly observed that he did not demonstrate this behavior with the other men in the same meetings as me. After one of these meetings was over, I spoke with him privately to let him know what I observed and how his behavior was perceived. I was very kind when delivering this critical feedback because I wanted this to be a “teachable moment” not a “gotcha!” He was very receptive of what I had to say and he was very apologetic. Moving forward, our working relationship was much healthier. 

Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about? 

Virgin Orbit is actively gearing up for our first orbital test flight!

What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far? 

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is both impressive and impactful because it allows organizations to build things faster and with precision. Not to mention the extreme innovation behind the concepts, programming, and execution of 3D printing… It is very profound and a necessary technology in many industries.

What role does 3D Printing play in the operations and strategy at Virgin Orbit?

At Virgin Orbit, we have been printing key parts of our rocket engines for some time. Early on, we recognized 3D printing as a great enabler. We have partnered with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and our collaborative goal is to study the use of 3D printing to build multimetallic combustion chambers. The benefit of developing multimetallic parts is that you can take advantage of their strength and conductivity to create a higher-performing end product. We use our hybrid additive-subtractive manufacturing machine to help us accomplish this quicker. An extensive hot-fire test campaign proved that the combustion chamber we tested together with NASA MSFC could hold up under realistic operational conditions, and it matched the performance of a traditionally manufactured unit.

What do you consider game-changing technologies? 

Virgin Orbit’s mobile launchpad! We have the capability of launching from anywhere in the world because of our modified Boeing 747 aircraft named Cosmic Girl. This enables us to be both affordable and a rapid response solution. 

What makes the Aerospace industry particularly interesting for you:

  •  As a business person? 

As a business person, the aerospace industry is interesting because it allows me to be a part of something that has a positive impact on the world. I have the honor to work with the smartest people around the globe, and it’s our diversity that gives us the incredible platform to make life on Earth a better place for all. 

  •  As a woman? 

Women in the aerospace industry are badass. Historically, this industry was male-dominated with minimal diversity. Women in the aerospace industry, especially at the senior leadership levels, possess an incredible amount of resiliency, grit, tenacity, and positivity. It can be very tough thriving in an environment where you are “the only one” or identify as being a part of an underrepresented group. Thanks to the women who came before me, and the women who are here now, I have the amazing opportunity to work on exciting space programs.

In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with space exploration, technological innovation, STEM education and 3D Printing? 

It’s all about women helping women by sharing stories, experiences, and strategies that lead to success. It’s about having the conversation with all genders to share why women empowerment is a movement for all. It is about identifying barriers and breaking those barriers down for each other. It is important that successful women in this industry seek out other talented women to mentor, inspire, and encourage. It’s very easy to keep your head down and work hard, but women must go that extra mile to be a positive influence for everyone in the aerospace industry (and other industries that lack women). Companies and organizations also need to normalize the fact that there are women employees and leaders in the aerospace industry by giving them the visibility to speak at major events and conferences. All leaders should seek out women and provide them with stretch assignments—assignments that will allow their skills to shine and/or provide positive coaching for improvement. We should never get too comfortable being the “only woman” at the table, but rather we must invite more women to the table. And there are many organizations that span STEM, aerospace, and 3D printing industries geared to connect women across the world. 

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