Envisioning a time when cubesats are routinely shipped to space

Daniel Gillies, 33, Rocket Lab USA, mission management and integration director

Daniel Gillies was planning to become an astrophysicist until a competition in his suburban Philadelphia middle school showed him how much fun it was to build things. Gillies now works at Rocket Lab headquarters in Huntington Beach, California, helping customers send small satellites into low Earth orbit on the 17-meter-tall Electron rocket. Rocket Lab, a U.S. company with a wholly owned subsidiary in New Zealand, where it operates a launch site, charges about $5.7 million to launch 150 kilograms. In January, Rocket Lab sent three cubesats into low Earth orbit on its second test flight.

How did you become an aerospace engineer?

Around sixth grade, we had a Future City Competition. It’s focused on civil engineering and architecture with a lot of planning and design. I loved it. My math teacher said, “You should think about engineering,” and told me what her husband did as an engineer. I got my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering at Purdue. [After I graduated,] NASA was beginning to award the contract for the Orion space capsule, and I didn’t want to miss an awesome phase of U.S. aerospace development. I became a flight controller for United Space Alliance in Houston and got operational experience, sitting on console and doing operations training with astronauts. It was exciting work but I never touched the real hardware. When the space shuttle program was ending, it was hard for Boeing to hire people for a program that was scheduled to end in a couple of years. But for me as a young engineer, it was perfect. I did five years with Boeing as a space shuttle mechanical engineer, a CH-47 helicopter design engineer and a 787 manufacturing engineer. At that point, SpaceX was ramping up its commercial operations prior to the first Falcon 9 fairing flight. I joined as a mission integrator and worked my way to mission manager for the space station commercial resupply missions. The mission manager role is superinteresting because you get to interact with every part of the company and external customers. After SpaceX, I did that work at Spaceflight Industries in Seattle, focusing on rideshare missions [where small satellites ride into orbit alongside larger ones]. Once the first flight of Rocket Lab’s Electron went off, I thought, “Now is the time for me to move in while the company is still young and help develop a new sector, small dedicated launch.”

Imagine the world in 2050: What do you think will be happening in space?

Right now, I view what we do as a logistics function, although it’s still very much treated like a specialized engineering function. By 2050, it’s my goal to help eliminate part of my job, the mission integration function, so that going to space is truly as routine as everyone wants it to be. When you want to get a satellite to orbit, you will bring in a package just like going to FedEx. There may be some white glove level of service for particularly sensitive payloads, but I fully expect universities and companies to be able to pack up their payloads and ship them off for a launch to space. I think there will be a large number of vehicles operating in space and we will have a more multimodal architecture. I expect by 2050, you will have a wide variety of options to get to orbit with small and large launch vehicles addressing their respective markets. The space industry will have in-space transportation services to the moon, to asteroids, or wherever they need to go.

Envisioning a time when cubesats are routinely shipped to space