Shelli Brunswick, the chief operating officer of the Space Foundation, almost missed out on her current job.
“I did what many women and minorities do,” she said. “We often sometimes question if we should apply for things. Never disqualify yourself from an opportunity you haven’t been offered. If an opportunity comes along, throw your name in there.”
Brunswick’s name is certainly out there. She also serves as the chair of the Women in Aerospace Foundation, which helps inspire female students to develop the skills needed to assume leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. She started her career in aerospace by enlisting in the Air Force, and has watched the industry grow from being the sole purview of military and government agencies to the next entrepreneurial frontier.
“In the ’80s our world was very different than it is today,” she said. “The Air Force was a great opportunity right out of high school, and I went to school at night and used the tuition assistance so I could get my degree. After I got my degree and I got my commission as an officer — I was selected to be a space acquisition officer — I really learned more about the aerospace and space industry. I was stationed at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, running space programs. It’s been a fun journey.”
As part of her efforts with the Space Foundation and the Women in Aerospace Foundation, Brunswick works to ensure that the new opportunities emerging in space are open to women as well. “What we’re seeing is the aerospace industry and the space industry are growing exponentially,” Brunswick explained. “The space industry right now is $424 billion. In the U.S. that space industry is 80 percent commercial, however, what we’re seeing for women and minorities, they don’t know that there is an opportunity for them to be part of the space economy. So the first step in our workforce development roadmap is awareness. Are we, as the Space Foundation and other organizations, breaking down barriers to those who have not traditionally sought careers in the space industry?”
Brunswick works to raise awareness about the diverse careers available to young women in the space and aerospace sectors. “There is a perception that space is about rocket scientists and astronauts, and we absolutely need them, but you know what? We also need news reporters, and we need financial managers, and we need fashion designers,” she said. “Over the last 30 years, since I started my career in the Air Force, space has become democratized, so now what we have to do is we have to open the aperture so that women — and other groups that have been underrepresented in space — know that there is an opportunity for them whether you have a high school degree or a Ph.D. We need to do a better job building that space awareness piece and showing young girls and women how they can be part of the space economy — what those careers look like.”
In addition to her work with the Space Foundation and the Women in Aerospace Foundation, Brunswick also makes a difference in the space industry on an international scale. “I’m a United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs Space4Women network mentor,” she said.
“I was selected as one of 35 around the globe to be a mentor. I have a number of protégés around the world who I talk to monthly to help them whether they’re an entrepreneur or they’re wanting to come into the space careers or going to school at [the University of Colorado] at Boulder. The role of being a U.N. Space4Women role model is just that, you are providing a role model so that other women can see you, and the goal for the U.N. is to advance women and girls in the space sector, into space careers. It’s about breaking down those barriers, showing that there’s access and opportunity, and then helping to bring young women and girls into space careers.”