Juli Lawless knows no bounds
At Made In Space, she’s changing the game of aerospace technology.
There’s something about Jupiter.
The largest planet in our solar system, it’s named after the king of the Roman gods. It exudes an energy that is both powerful and benevolent, unlike its red sibling Mars. Its movement in Gustav Holst’s The Planets is titled “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and features bombastic brass and timpani to evoke the friendly gas giant.
Jupiter captivated Juli Lawless from a young age. She was fascinated by its duality: an outward beauty that belied an inner, uninhabitable chaos. Lawless, too, contains dualities. Both a dancer and a thinker, she felt not taken seriously by classmates in college. Her career has led her through government and private-sector space companies. Now, she is the director of business development for national defense at private aerospace company Made In Space, where she bridges the two sectors.
Amid mews from her three foster kittens, Inverse spoke to Lawless about taking power back in her education, bringing “old space” and “new space” together, and being good enough.
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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What was your first experience with space?
In third grade, we first learned about astronomy and the solar system. I had always liked math and science class, but that was the first time I was beyond excited about education. I came home from school so — pun intended — over the moon, and I remember telling my parents that I was going to see the Earth from the outside of it.
From there, I started writing letters to NASA and getting them to mail me all these pamphlets just so I could continue to learn. I told them my favorite planet was Jupiter, and they would send stacks and stacks of information.
I also put [glow-in-the-dark] stars in my bedroom, but I actually did it in celestial order. My parents wanted to send me to space camp, but we couldn't afford it at the time, so they just encouraged me to keep getting involved in what local STEM activities there were.
What did you think an astronaut did when you were a kid? How was that different from what they actually do?
When I was a kid, I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut. I thought that they just got to ride in spaceships and look at planets. I don't think I fully understood that we had only gone as far as the Moon, and that those really cool pictures of Saturn's rings were taken by cameras and satellites. One of the reasons I decided not to be an astronaut is because I learned that, basically, they train their entire lives and the majority of them don't actually ever go into space. That disappointment of possibly working your entire career and never actually getting to see the Earth from outside of it was pretty discouraging.
“Out of a failure, good things can come to you and help you to where you are today.”
Another thing is that a lot of what's done by astronauts is on the International Space Station, but a lot of it is geology and biology. Those are great sciences, and I think it's very important work that they're doing, but I wanted to study astronomy and aerospace engineering and space.
I told my brother that I was going to be an astronomer instead. And he said, “Absolutely not, because you're not going to live in my basement one day.” And I was like, “Okay, well, I want to work in space. What do I do?” And he's like, “You should be an aerospace engineer.” I think I was 12 at the time, and he's my older brother. So I just decided that day forward that I was going to be an aerospace engineer, and the rest is history.
Were there any points along the way when you questioned your decision to go into aerospace engineering?
Yeah, absolutely. College was really tough for me. I grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. It has great school systems, but we didn't have some of the programs I felt like a lot of my classmates had, like robotics and engineering courses in high school. I really felt like I was thrown to the sharks, diving into aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland. And then there was a lot of sexism, and it was really discouraging. There were eight of us in a class of 80. It was a lot of mistreatment and underestimating how smart I was. I was asked to be on classmates' teams for projects not because they thought I was smart; they just wanted to flirt with me the whole time. I actually almost dropped out several times. I thought, “Maybe I'll just go be a science teacher.”
I went to my guidance counselor and I said, “This just isn't really working for me. I don't love the curriculum, and I don't know if it's because of the treatment I've been getting or that no one takes me seriously, or that maybe my heart's just not in it.” I had been a way above average student in high school, and then in college, I was pretty average, and that didn't sit well with me. My guidance counselor was awesome and was actually able to customize my program for me, so my degree is actually in physical sciences with specialties in aerospace engineering, astronomy, and atmospheric science. I was able to take more astronomy classes and theoretical astrophysics — that space science that I had always been really into.
I think the fact that I was able to customize it a little bit gave me the confidence to push through. I mean, my grades went from C's to A's after that. It was a big mental shift for me to take that power back and feel that I was in charge of my future.
What was your first failure in space?
I got a D in “Aerodynamics 1” and had to repeat it. It was a little embarrassing. The next semester when I retook it, some of those people that I met in that class have helped me in my career and are still in my network. If I hadn't failed that class, I wouldn't know these people, right? It's funny how out of a failure, good things can come to you and help you to where you are today.
“We're going to launch this, and we're going to change the game of national defense space.”
How have you changed your field?
What I’m doing now at Made In Space is bridging the gap between older companies — what we call “old space” — and a new way of doing things.
After college, I worked in a satellite factory for two years. Right from there, based on a connection that I had when I worked at space camp — my best friend's dad said, “Juli, I know you don't know anything about this world, but I like your work ethic, I like your energy, and I feel like you can really bring a new perspective into my office, which is the Defense Intelligence Agency.”
The three-letter agencies are a whole other world, especially when you're talking about sciences. They have some of the coolest technology you can ever wrap your head around. I was 24, and I had zero clearances, and he vouched for me. I worked in this office that was all middle-aged men, and it was interesting and awkward. For the nine months it took me to get my clearances, they had to escort me to the bathroom and stand outside, because we were working in SCIFs, which are special compartmentalized information facilities. It's like no cell phones, and if you're not cleared, you have to have someone walk you around.
I was able to bring in fresh energy and excitement, but I think it also gave me a lot of confidence to bring that into my future jobs. I worked in the intelligence community and DOD and more military space for a while, and then I ended up working at DARPA. All these were really awesome jobs for being fairly young. When I met the guys at Made In Space, they were like, “We need you on this team.”
Made In Space got our fame from working with NASA. But when I saw the technologies, I was like, “The DOD could really use this to protect our space assets — these capabilities are mind-blowing.” Because someone took a chance on me back then [at the DIA], I had that confidence to go to the DOD and say, “We're going to go from being a startup with technology that's maybe like 15 years down the line to convincing you that this is two years from now. We're going to launch this, and we're going to change the game of national defense space.”
What are some of the differences you’ve seen between “old space” and “new space”?
In “old space,” it's like, if it's not broken, don't fix it. We're spending billions of dollars on some of these programs, and therefore, you have to go through every check, every balance, and they're super risk-averse. We go by the plan and we don't try more than one new thing at a time. The goal is to put something safe that we know is going to work up there.
A great public example of “new space” is SpaceX. They're like, “We're going to try this wild thing, and if it fails, we learn from it, so it's not a failure.” That's the mentality of “new space,” that it's OK to fail. Losing a million dollars on one failed program is fine because when it actually works, we have now saved $50 billion. It's that kind of forward vision that "new space" is wholeheartedly built on.
Here's an example with Made In Space: Traditional old-school space uses deployables, so to put solar panels in space, you'd need a satellite that goes up, opens up, and then these solar panels unfold. They've been folded like origami inside. It's a complicated process because they have to survive launch and are all fragile, and then once they're up there, you better hope that they unfold correctly because they've been rattled around in a rocket ship.
Made In Space said, “What if we don't have to design for the rocket? What if we can send the core of that satellite up, but inside of it is a 3D printer — an additive manufacturing machine? What if once we get up there, then we print out part of that solar panel? We could even build it longer than the traditional method can because it doesn't have to fit inside of the satellite. Instead of having that box and fitting everything in, you use that box and build outward. The physics supports it, so why have we not been doing this?” That's one of the things that's, no pun intended, thinking outside the box.
What’s a rookie mistake that you’ve made?
Not asking questions. I was often both the youngest in the room and the only female, and I was afraid to ask questions in fear of looking stupid. I think I have tried to look smarter than maybe I felt in a lot of scenarios, but that doesn't help you. You're not fooling anybody. My defense mechanism is to listen and try to take it all in, but that's not a very effective way of learning. Asking questions doesn't mean you're stupid; it just means you want to clarify what they said and you're eager to learn. I still catch myself doing it sometimes, too, and I’ve had to backpedal because of it.
It’s like that meme format: “I don’t understand what ____ is, and at this point I’m too afraid to ask.”
Yeah, you just dig yourself in a hole and then you get to a spot where you're like, “I should really know what that is.”
What’s your superpower?
My sweet spot is being personable and having technical knowledge. A lot of times in science and space, you have some people that are super technical, but then they don't care about or have the skillset to do the business side of things or talk to people. And people on the business side might not care to learn about the tech. I consider myself a little bit of a generalist; I'm really good at straddling those lines where I can come to somebody with a really cool technology and get them to listen to me, and then blow their mind with what the tech is.
Where’s one place you’d like to go where no one has gone before?
Traveling the solar system, Magic School Bus-style. I've always been obsessed with Jupiter. I think it just looks like a marble, and it's full of storms. It's so beautiful, but it's complete chaos that you can admire from afar.
“We're going to change the way the national defense space thinks about technology.”
Seeing the big red spot, or the rings of Saturn — if I could just take a trip around the planets and see them all, including Pluto, and be home within a couple of weeks, I’d do that 1 million percent.
What’s one thing you’d tell your 15-year-old self?
You are always good enough. As women, even as adults, it's amazing how much we doubt that. You can be confident in certain ways but still doubt that. I mean, I'm a 305 Fitness instructor; I wear booty shorts and dance around people for fun, and I have a lot of confidence. I'm really proud of who I am and the people around me and what I've been able to accomplish, but it's something that's so, so hard to keep up with, especially when you're faced with challenging situations. So I would want [my 15-year-old self] to deep down in her soul believe that.
What do you do on a day off?
I love to dance and work out. Moving my body and living a healthy lifestyle is really important to me. I also love to travel — I climbed Mount Everest to a bit above base camp in November, and it was magical. I also love the beach; during the pandemic, I’ve literally been in my pool as much as possible.
If your biography were written today, what would the title be?
It would be something dynamic, like, You can have your cake and eat it too. You can be a fitness instructor and an aerospace engineer, you can live this duality.
Who’s a person in space you want to shout out?
My best friend Stephanie Eftimiades, whose dad initially took a chance on me and hired me at the DIA. She’s in the space industry, too, and she’s been my cheerleader the whole way.
Also, my friend Caitlin Marsh. Both she and Steph are amazingly smart and talented females in the aerospace profession and continuously push me to pursue and accomplish my goals. All three of us do a lot to give back to younger, up-and-coming females in STEM.
What’s next for you?
Honestly, I'm having a blast right now. I switched jobs a year ago from the 9-to-5, old-school government world to working with this exciting new company. We were recently acquired, and I have been tasked with helping to build out the entire national defense architecture for this company. That is huge for me. It's less of me like going out and saying, “I have this piece of tech. Do you want to use it?” but instead being more proactive, building out a full strategy, and then pursuing those efforts that fit within that and really making that happen. That to me is next-level career stuff, where I'm not just the gopher going around, but I'm more of the brains behind the operation. We're going to change the way the national defense space thinks about technology.