Integrity and Grit: Melanie Stricklan on How Slingshot Aerospace Earned the Space Industry’s Trust
Slingshot Aerospace CEO Melanie Stricklan talks with Via Satellite after winning the 2022 Satellite Executive of the Year award to retrace her career path to co-found a space situational awareness company built on trust and integrity.
April 24, 2023
Slingshot Aerospace, a relative newcomer in the space situational awareness market, has quickly earned the trust of satellite operators. In just five years of operation, Slingshot has managed to include 90 percent of all satellites in Low-Earth Orbit on its Beacon space situational awareness platform, on which operators share the responsibility of space traffic management to prevent costly disasters. By the end of this year, Slingshot plans to deploy more than 80 new optical sensors to bring its total network to more than 200 sensors across more than 20 sites globally
Co-founder and CEO Melanie Stricklan attributes this success to the way the company approached the space traffic conversation with operators. She formed a community where satellite operators serve as mutual investors in solutions to potential costly disasters, while preserving their highly-valued autonomy. In turn, the satellite industry showed its appreciation by voting for Stricklan as the 2022 Satellite Executive of the Year.
Stricklan says she feels both “honored” by the award and “shocked” that a startup could be recognized among the titans of the space industry. She also quickly diverts credit for the win and Slingshot’s rapid rise to her team. “It’s a testament to the grit, determination, and tenacity that our leadership team has,” says Stricklan. “It feels that we are finally being recognized as leaders in the space industry — not just because of our idea, but because of the paradigm shifts that we are cultivating.”
After receiving the 2022 Satellite Executive of the Year award, Stricklan sat down with Via Satellite to retrace her career path to this moment, which begins in Eldorado, West Texas with a career in the U.S. Air Force. She highlights the lessons she’s learned along the journey that helped her co-found a commercial space company built on trust and integrity.
VIA SATELLITE: Congratulations on winning Satellite Executive of the Year! How did the Slingshot Aerospace story begin for you?
Stricklan: It’s probably wise to go back to my very beginning days because it had such a huge impact on why we are here today. I grew up in West Texas and there are not a lot of opportunities. But I was inspired by the night sky. I could see the Milky Way on most clear nights. My dad taught me the difference between a satellite and an airplane crossing over, and I was infatuated with both. I even started tracking satellites as a young girl. A librarian helped me find addresses to all the NASA centers, and I started writing and started receiving manila envelopes from NASA. It inspired me so much that I couldn't wait to cultivate a career in both flight and space.
I couldn't think of a better place than the United States Air Force to do that. I joined the Air Force in 1996. I started out enlisted, I was going to school nights and weekends to get a degree and cross over to the officer side. I was flying in the back of the (at the time brand-new) battle management platform JSTARs [Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System]. It was pulling in different pieces of data, including vertically integrating synthetic aperture radar. I got a great understanding of what data means and the relevance of timelines as you support those on the ground with real-time information.
[Then I was accepted to] officer training school and into the United States Air Force Space program. I had the awesome opportunity of meeting industry partners that were really shaking up the industry with new commercial models of capability, including SpaceX and others. I realized, if reusable [rockets] work this time around, then we were going to have an issue on our hands with the digital infrastructure necessary to hold all of the capability that they would be able to send up.
In 2017, I decided to retire and start Slingshot Aerospace to take care of this data and digital infrastructure needs with two co-founders. We cast way too wide of a net. We were doing geospatial in stealth mode, but we quickly realized that our traction, expertise, and passion was on the space situational awareness side. So we decided in 2021 when I took the helm as CEO, to drop [geospatial]. It was a hard decision, but we did it. Now we're laser-focused on space sustainability, which is helping our customer base optimize their mission operations, and the safety and deconfliction of space traffic management. Those two pillars have allowed us to create a community around our technology that I couldn't have foreseen when we founded the company.
Via Satellite: What space traffic management problems did you see when you were in the military, and how did that influence how Slingshot approaches those problems?
Stricklan: I saw a lot of older technologies that didn't scale and were very siloed as an artifact of these capabilities starting in the Cold War as highly classified systems. As the commerciality of space started to increase, those silos were actually impacting the ability for owner operators to communicate with one another and deconflict their airspace.
We started seeing large amounts of uncontrolled space debris. Some of those were caused by geopolitical events. But those large amounts of space debris were growing with every launch, with every defunct satellite. When I retired from the Air Force we were tracking about 1,800 satellites. With the massive growth of launches and satellites and megaconstellations, we're now well over 10,000 and marching toward over 100,000 operational satellites on orbit by the end of the decade. Mission operations were also rapidly increasing in complexity. There’s very few constellations that are fully autonomous.
What if we were able to build a modern data platform that could pull in contextual data, observation data, telemetry data, [to] decrease the complexity of mission operations? And in turn, help customers who want to be part of the answer to sustainability on orbit. Could we help energize them toward being a member of a community that's actually providing leverage to a more sustainable space operating environment? We knew that we had to build a data platform that was communicative that allowed them to decentralize their air traffic control for space and work with one another to deconflict. That put the stick back on the operators and gave them the portal to be part of something bigger than their own operations.
VIA SATELLITE: Thank you for your service. How has your military service shaped the way you lead Slingshot?
Stricklan: Leadership is critical. The reason that most of us who joined the military and stayed for a considerable amount of time, we did that because we wanted to serve. I’m biased, but I believe the United States Air Force is the best leadership organization in the world to equip me and others with valuable skills and experiences that definitely are beneficial to me as an entrepreneur. I am a servant leader. It’s very important to me that we cultivate leaders here. The best leaders build leaders. You often think about the military as a hierarchical organization. But I learned that that's not the way the U.S. Air Force works. It's certainly not that way in mission-critical circumstances. When you step out to the jet that I flew on for eight years, the hierarchy goes out the window. We are there to solve a mission and come home alive and make sure that our customers on the ground got what they needed. I bring that to work here every day. I had to make very tough decisions under immense pressure in the United States Air Force, whether it was flying on surveillance aircraft in combat, or deploying and operating experimental on-orbit experiments. They're tough decisions, and it's a high pressure environment. And the ability to have resilience. I learned perseverance through tough times in the Air Force.
One of the biggest things is attention to detail. In the Air Force, whether you're flying on a jet or you're operating a multi-billion-dollar spacecraft, you have to have attention to detail, it's critical for mission success and safety. Sometimes my team may get annoyed at how much attention to detail that I bring to an effort, but it’s critical. Everything that you put out, your attention to detail is critical, because it reflects the whole company.
Then — integrity above all. That’s a top core value at Slingshot. It means you have to do what's right when no one else is looking. It was also the top core value of the United States Air Force. There's a lot that I brought from the United States Air Force that helped me run this company and helped me cultivate leaders here — not just to lead their teams, but to lead the world in a paradigm shift in terms of safety, sustainability, and better operations on orbit.
VIA SATELLITE: You are on a number of engagement groups with the government. Do you think the U.S. government is adequately engaged with the space industry for policy and regulation?
Stricklan: The National Space Council UAG [User Advisor Group] is core to that information exchange with the industry. We're providing advice and recommendations on everything from space policy issues related to national security, civil commercial space activities, to conducting studies and analysis to inform national decision making. Engaging with stakeholders across the space industry and other organizations to identify emerging issues is a top priority of the administration, Department of Defense, and civil agencies right now. Everyone is looking for ways to identify opportunities for collaboration between the government and industry. Industry is being invited more than ever to testify on the Hill.
We're at a weird time where our acquisition systems in the U.S. government are still antiquated to the industrial era. And now we're here in the digital era, using those acquisition methodologies and policies that don't necessarily lend to leveraging commercial capabilities. Does the U.S. government work enough and have aspirations to work with industry moving forward on these problems? Yes, but we've got to do better. We've got to make sure that the Department of Commerce is equipped with the right acquisition to adhere to their mission, which is to cultivate economies of scale and capitalism of our industrial base, versus building and competing with our industrial base.
VIA SATELLITE: In the commercial sector, why do you think operators put their trust in you and your company? What value do you think they see in your approach to space situational awareness?
Stricklan: We don't demarcate ourselves into an altitude or a thin line product. We put the customers at the center of everything we do and I really think the customers see that. They're willing to come to the table and share their biggest needs with us. That doesn't come by just picking up the phone and getting in doors, we have to have people that have the relationships built in. Our core values lend to protection of our customers data — protection of their IP and their business models. Our trust is our biggest brand asset. The capabilities that we've brought forth aren't just lab capabilities or data in a new form. It actually takes into account how they want to experience the answers that our platform gives them, and how they want those integrated. We go in with a more customized approach.
VIA SATELLITE: Is it still a challenge to get broader commercial industry consensus on the need for space traffic management?
Stricklan: I have seen a huge shift over the last two years in acceptance. Not only acceptance, but ‘How do I become part of the movement? How do I, as an operator of 3,000 satellites, help the community avoid potential dangerous situations that may be perceived that I may be causing?’ I say perceived very clearly because these operators have safety baked into the design of their constellations. They are not just haphazardly throwing things up there. But they realize more clearly now that this space industry is going to continue to grow [and] it is absolutely required for the ecosystem to work closer together.
Over the last two years, folks that were like ‘Space is big’ now say ‘Space is big, but we’re flying across each other right now and we really need to work together to solve this problem.’
In the beginning [we called ourselves] space traffic control or space traffic management, and the owner-operator on the commercial side did not want to talk. We removed the words management and control [and asked] How can we put [operators’] way of flying at the center logic of a platform, that gives operators that control of their future space traffic management? The doors just started opening. That's when we realized folks do care about international cooperation, that it's critical for effective space traffic management, but they also don't want the control taken away from them.
VIA SATELLITE: How do you and your team at Slingshot Aerospace plan to build on this recognition over the next few years?
Stricklan: We’ll be laser focused on our North Star, which is to accelerate space sustainability and create a safer, more connected world. Mission operations and collision avoidance is central to that. We have a digital space twin as our platform. What that means is we're virtualizing the space operating environment from Low-Earth Orbit all the way up to cislunar. It’s not just the physical environment that we're virtualizing, it is dynamically fed with real-time information. It is virtualizing debris, the RF [radio frequency] environment, the weather environment. We can help our customers increase the optimization of their platforms on orbit. Over the next couple of years we hope to take Beacon out to other orbital regimes and we will continue to increase our observation rates through our global sensor network. We will continue to look at ways to improve the interoperability of our platform through API's and intersections with our customers’ capabilities.
VIA SATELLITE: What would you say is the best and worst case scenario for space traffic management in the next 10 years?
Stricklan: Worst case on the space traffic management side is the Kessler phenomena. That is absolutely the worst case — a cascading debris on debris event that actually takes out an orbital regime like LEO. Critical infrastructure would go down. The ability to understand where we are in relation to one another on Earth goes away, GPS, and GNSS goes away. Those types of infrastructure losses would be the worst-case scenario. That would take us back to the ‘50s. I don't think any of us want to go back there.
Best case scenario is to think about automation on orbit. If there was a movement to truly automate all constellations and satellites on board with a digital infrastructure, then we would have smooth flying, we wouldn't have accidents, and anomalies would be few and far between. That's the best case scenario — everything is autonomous up there and it’s all talking to one another with a single sheet of music to deconflict risk.
VIA SATELLITE: In your acceptance speech, you called the Slingshot team ‘Slingshooters.’ And you talked a lot about the culture in this conversation. How have you intentionally built that culture as co-founder and CEO?
Stricklan: I often say culture is like our gravity constant — you can't see it, but it sure is there, and it makes the world go around. When you lose track of it, toxicity comes in. It’s so easy to lose track of it. Talking to mentors, they said you have to design culture from the beginning, and you have to cultivate it every single day, with every single meeting, every single product design. The founders went off to a little cabin and spent four days really thinking about what the most important core values would be for this company, and what the leadership principles that folks could enact those core values with would be.
VIA SATELLITE: What did you come up with?
Stricklan: Trust, Integrity, Stewardship, Teamwork, Transparency, and Curiosity. Trust is the cornerstone of everything.
We enact those things by putting the customer at the center of everything we do. We prioritize solving our customers’ problems above everything else. Trust and respect, we intentionally create and maintain that culture inside and outside. When we see a crack in that trust and respect across our teams, we ask them to say something. Don't let it build up, let's communicate about it.
Then extreme ownership and bias for action. We don't slow down — we only slow down enough to take a breath so that we can go faster. We only hire folks that really embody extreme ownership — take ownership of our efforts, our results, and our failures, and learn from those. It's really putting all these things together, making sure people have a voice. We seek feedback, we don't seek consensus across the team. We make sure that mediocrity is not part of our company.
All of that takes a lot of work. It's not just stuff on a wall. It's how we operate. And if you do that right, there’s no room for ego. Part of the reason that we are trusted across the community is that entitlement has no place in our organization. Putting the customer at the center of everything we do means we can't bring our ego to work.
VIA SATELLITE: You've been outspoken about gender and racial diversity in the space industry. What is it going to take for the space industry to move forward on this?
Stricklan: It has to start earlier. We can't expect our pipeline of talent to change overnight when we haven’t started with K through 12. It starts at those early ages. We have to inspire children to seek their passions — even if they're not good at math. I was not good at math, and I run a space company today that is math-centric. We've got to give applied learning opportunities to these folks that they can have hands on. Not only can they see it to be it, but they can actually start to experiment with things that meet them where their passions, interest, and curiosity are.
But what do we do now? We have to really think about diversity as a crucial component of effective innovation. Every company, every organization, every department across the government, that is part of the space wants to innovate. How can we bring in differences in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, culture, education, and experience? And really think about what those diverse backgrounds and perspectives can do for increased innovation. Not just workplace culture that's better equipped to tackle complex challenges, but the innovation and creativity that diversity brings from the scrum room to the boardroom and beyond. We as leaders of the space community can dig in deeper and not be scared about talking about [diversity] as a core objective, quarter-over-quarter.
I'm very proud to be one of the original signatories for the Space Workforce Pledge 2030, which is driving toward better diversity. It’s giving companies like Slingshot and Boeing — two opposite ends of the spectrum — the ability and the tools to gain diversity. We have to not be worried about making that just as important in your company's metrics as profitability.
VIA SATELLITE: How did you find your voice on diversity?
Stricklan: Through my military career, it was always a better answer when we had more diverse people in mission planning. It was very clear to me that when we were more diverse, we were more creative, more innovative.
And I got to see it. Lieutenant General Susan Helms, who is an advisor to Slingshot, was one of my leaders in the Air Force. She was also a NASA astronaut five times and holds the longest spacewalk record. Myrtle Cagle from the Mercury 13 was a personal mentor in my younger days in the Air Force. Many people don’t know that there were 13 women who went through the same testing as the Mercury crew did and passed it with extremely better scores than the guys did. But they didn't get to go. Having her as a personal mentor was an incredible way of seeing the grit and tenacity that women bring to the table.
Experiencing the creativity and innovation of diverse teams helped me know that as we built Slingshot, it’s about designing the diversity that you want. It starts with recruiting. Everytime we get resumes in, I’m ecstatic when I see diverse and underrepresented groups come in that door.
VIA SATELLITE: What would you say today to young Melanie in Texas getting packages in the mail from NASA?
Stricklan: Keep looking up. You're going to struggle, you're going to have setbacks. But you have to keep looking up. You have to keep pushing for what you want. And you have to remain humble and kind. VS