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Tom Zelibor

Tom Zelibor has led the Space Foundation as its CEO for 3½ years. The nonprofit, which has a global reach, was founded in Colorado Springs in 1983 and has never been more relevant as the space industry expands to include satellite internet and commercial space travel. The foundation aims to educate and provide information about space and to host industry forums. Zelibor, however, comes from a decorated career at sea, not in space.

He spent more than 30 years in the United States Navy and retired in 2011. As a naval aviator and rear admiral, Zelibor led tens of thousands of sailors and three carrier battle groups in response to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He went on to serve as chairman and CEO of Lightwave Logic, a public corporation producing high-speed organic electro-optic materials for use in devices in the telecommunications, data center and high-speed computing markets. He was also president and CEO of Flatirons Solutions, a high-tech IT professional services and systems engineering company, where he was responsible for the overall strategic guidance and direction of business operations, and as vice president for Science Applications International Corporation.

He was appointed this year as a member of the Defense Innovation Board Space Advisory Committee, which is composed of leaders from across the national security innovation base to provide insight to the Department of Defense. The Business Journal spoke with Zelibor about the postponement of this year’s Space Symposium and what space industry will look like in coming years.  

What’s the mission of the Space Foundation?

We’re an organization that is designed to inspire, educate, connect and advocate for the entire global space community. That mission is really important. We organized under three core pillars: space awareness, education and then service to the space community. The education pillar is the one where we see the most value. We’re trying to inspire the next generation of not just space enthusiasts, but people that can work in the space industry.

I think opportunities are plentiful. We do that through some of our programming and things like the annual Space Symposium. Then space awareness is the education of the general public on the value of space to life on Earth, as well as the technologies that [the industry] generates.

What job opportunities can the expanding industry offer? 

I kind of smiled when you were bringing that up because we view space in a much broader context than just astronauts and rocket scientists. There are so many areas of opportunity, and we look for diversity and inclusion in the space industry because it touches so many business sectors. So it’s not just the traditional workforce — the [science, technology, engineering and math]-skills area — which is always going to be in demand in industry. But we need people with business skills, legal expertise, communications background, manufacturing [and] people that really know how to do complex problem solving. But it even goes beyond that. It can be in things like welders and people like that. So there is just an abundance of opportunity for ... diverse people and diverse talents that can really come together to make the space community and the space economy much more successful.

Why is the space economy expanding right now?

If I had to pin it down to one thing ... I would say commercial involvement. Before, it used to be pretty much a government or civil agency sector, and there wasn’t a lot of commercial activity. That’s completely reversed now. ... The overall [space economy] right now worldwide [equals] $420 billion with over 80 countries operating in it. So it’s no longer this ... country-to-country race between [the United States] and Russia. It’s so important for people to understand that. So just over the last decade, the space economy has grown 73 percent, which is phenomenal. And just over the last year, it’s grown by $9 billion. So all the indications are that it’s hot, and it’s growing. 

You can also look at things like recent approvals for large satellite constellations for both Amazon and SpaceX to provide internet service from space. Those constellations are well over a few thousand satellites each. So you have this unbelievable commercial growth as well as commercial launch that is really changing the face of the space community.

How has the Space Foundation grown since you began as CEO?

Everybody thinks that they do the best job ever. But I would say over the last 3½ years that I’ve been here we have really expanded. The Space Foundation had done some work in the education area. And of course, we’re always known for the Space Symposium, but we’re so much more than that. We do research and analysis; we’ve launched an effort called the Center of Innovation in Education. And it’s an entire set of activities that we’re doing to help generate the future workforce for the space economy. It also is looking at things like entrepreneurship, and how do you transfer some of the technology that’s available to organizations like NASA. There’s thousands of patents on the shelf that young entrepreneurs can do. And what we’re doing is trying to help educate, and promote those types of things to anybody that would like to listen. And these are all new initiatives that have started since I got here. We’re diversifying our offerings, we’re trying to be more impactful, and we’re going beyond just being known for the symposium because we’re so much better than that.

What was behind the decision to reschedule the Space Symposium? 

Obviously, it hurt financially. But the decision [to postpone] was the right thing. We could see what was going on with COVID, and it was going to affect us. And we worked very closely with The Broadmoor and their CEO, as well as city leaders. [We] all discussed it and thought it was the best thing that we delay. Initially, we had delayed from the spring to fall to what was actually supposed to be [the last week of October]. We didn’t feel that things were going to be far enough along and travel restrictions would probably not be lifted. So then we started looking at next spring. ... We wanted to give ourselves a little more daylight between a potential vaccine and when people would be able to travel again. So that’s where the decision came from to move it to Aug. 22 through 26, 2021. 

Do you focus on diversity and inclusion when developing new talent? 

We like saying, ‘Space for everyone.’ We need diverse people and diverse talents so that they can come together and really expand the opportunities and innovation in every country and community that’s in the space arena. So we’ve done several things to help that along. The Space Foundation received a grant from the Minority Business Development Agency almost two years ago. We were focusing on minority businesses. We brought in business experts that were helping them understand the space industry. We partnered with a lot of universities in order to bring in the young entrepreneurial types of people that maybe were not aware that the space industry was looking for this previously, and it was a huge success. But we did programs all over the country. We had a scholarship program at the end where we were able to pick certain companies that had some promising technologies. We paid for their registration at the symposium and got them in front of some really big companies. I had several of these people come up and say that the program that we did, and the opportunities we presented to them, literally changed their lives. And there’s a couple of examples where some of these companies received multimillion-dollar contracts because of that effort. That’s all about awareness and education, and trying to bring in that diverse workforce. We want to continue doing things like that. 

Where did your personal passion for space come from?

I was a naval aviator for many years in the Navy. So I was obviously an aerospace guy. But I was extremely fascinated on how we got information and imagery and how we communicate with the armed forces. The last time I looked, there weren’t any fiber-optic cable reels attached to a fantail of a ship. So I knew it had to get there somehow, and the answer is through a lot of space technologies. When I was coming to the end of my days as a naval aviator, I knew I wanted to really get involved in that. When I made admiral, my very first job was to become commander of Naval Space Command. Prior to that, I had done a lot of work with the National Reconnaissance Office in one of my previous jobs, and I was just passionate about how to make our warfighting forces more effective. It grew from that though because I started seeing the benefit of space that went way beyond the warfighting aspect. And it gets back to that benefit to humanity. And the technologies we were using, that were actually helping us solve difficult problems on Earth.