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A Moment with a Mission Manager: Jeff Kwong

As the Director of Mission Management at Virgin Orbit, Jeff Kwong leads the charge on the successful execution of all of our customer missions. His background includes more than 10 years’ experience in launch vehicle analysis and design, with a skillset that bridges aerospace engineering and business development expertise. Working closely with the NASA Launch Services Program (LSP) team, Jeff serves as the mission manager for Virgin Orbit’s upcoming Launch Demo 2 flight, the 20thmission of the Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa XX) series.

We recently sat down with Jeff to learn more about his background and to get his read on why small satellites are proving to be the next big thing in the space industry.

What does a Mission Manager at Virgin Orbit do exactly? How would you describe your job and your day-to-day responsibilities?

Mission managers are responsible for the successful execution of the customer’s mission. We are the primary interface with the customer and coordinate all aspects of the mission. So this includes everything from working with the customer on defining requirements, to flowing those requirements to the applicable internal teams, to ensuring that all team members are aware of their responsibilities.

This requires coordination across many different disciplines. This includes interfacing with the Structures department on the payload stack design, Avionics on harnessing design, Loads & Dynamics on determining the mission specific environments, and Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) on the mission and trajectory design. Besides coordinating with engineering teams, we also coordinate with the Finance and Contracts teams. So mission management has a very wide reach, but basically we’re responsible for bringing all those pieces together so that the mission is successful.

In terms of day-to-day responsibilities – most days are consumed with meetings. I spend most of my time meeting with the various teams to ensure that all teams know what requirements they are supposed to work to and answering any questions that the teams have. I also gather inputs to aid their analysis or design. Then, once the teams have completed their analysis or design, I have to ensure that I’ve reviewed all their work to ensure that customer requirements are being met.

Besides spending a good chunk of my day in meetings (both with internal teams and with customers), I am also responsible for managing Virgin Orbit’s launch manifest, resolving any issues that require changes to our vehicle baseline, communicating status of our missions to our Senior Leadership, preparing customer deliverables, supporting our Business Development team with proposal requests and sales meetings, and managing/mentoring the Mission Management team.

How did you end up here? What motivated you to pursue a career in mission management?

I’ve always wanted to go into mission management, and there are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that I like interfacing with customers. It’s a unique perspective that you don’t get when you’re just doing the design or analysis. Understanding what the customer wants helps to inform what the service offering should be — and this provides more context than working to a set of requirements on a piece of paper.

The second aspect is that it is an opportunity for me to bridge my skills. I consider myself pretty technical, having started at Virgin Orbit as a systems engineer, but I also have a business background, having gone to school for a MBA and worked in Business Development organizations. The great thing about mission management is that it allows me to utilize both of those skillsets to ensure successful mission execution. Finally, Mission Management gives me a wide reach that I wouldn’t have if I worked for a specific department. This definitely keeps the job fun and gives me an opportunity to learn new things every day.

Small satellites have been around for a couple decades at least, but only recently have they begun to receive the attention and investment they deserve. What’s changing to bring small satellites to the forefront in that way?

Advancements in technology and miniaturization have definitely helped out significantly. And I think having more launch options is helpful as well. Before, space was expensive and limited to rideshare opportunities, but now there are more options in the market, especially with dedicated launch. The capabilities that companies like Virgin Orbit are bringing forth are enabling a market that probably couldn’t have existed before. Now, small satellites can ride on a low-cost dedicated launch on their schedule and to the orbit that they specifically want to go to, rather than being at the mercy of the primary payload.

The other aspect is a more widespread acceptance of what CubeSats can do. Missions like the MarCO mission that flew to Mars, as well as the NASA RainCube mission, which proved that you can do space weather measurements in a 6U form factor, are demonstrating that CubeSats are more capable than ever before. I expect to see more CubeSats serving critical missions in the future to destinations that are not limited to low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Finally, it is hard to ignore the low costs of small satellites — especially CubeSats. You can build and launch a CubeSat for much, much less than building a much larger spacecraft. And you’re only losing a little bit of capability for costs that are an order of magnitude (or more) less.  The economics of small satellites make it hard to ignore them.

From a mission management perspective, how is Virgin Orbit doing launch differently?

Virgin companies are all about having fun and loving what you do. This mantra carries through with everything we do and our customers see it — they know that we’re really passionate. Overall, it’s just a better experience for everyone when Virgin Orbit makes the entire experience different and fun.

From a technical perspective, air launch has a lot of benefits. We can target any orbit with our mobile launch system, and our aircraft-like operations, small launch support footprint, and trailerized equipment can be ready to support launches in a short timeframe. This is ideal for responsive launch, a capability that many customers have been and will continue to be interested in.

Why was Virgin Orbit selected to launch these payloads for the CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI)?

Virgin Orbit was selected because we have the capability to provide dedicated launch for NASA for small satellites. In the past, launch opportunities for small satellites were limited to rideshare-type arrangements, flying only when space was available on other launches. With small satellites playing an increasingly larger role in exploration, technology demonstration, and science, NASA wanted to assist emerging small launch vehicles so that these vehicles would be able to provided dedicated access to space for these satellites with diverse missions and requirements.  NASA specifically did this through the Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program, created by NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) to foster the development of launch vehicles such as LauncherOne.

The idea behind VCLS is to improve NASA’s understanding of our launch system. This program is specifically intended to be more risk tolerant, while enabling NASA’s LSP to influence new emerging providers. NASA has been incredibly helpful with the latter, as they have served as a mentor to help us advance our capabilities and services so that we can be a trusted provider for future NASA missions.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for a student who wants to launch a satellite into space one day? Any thoughts on how they can break into the space world?

A lot of universities have excellent design projects that enable students to work on everything from rockets to CubeSats. Considering the plethora of opportunities that exist at universities, I would recommend that anyone who wants to go into the space industry get involved with one of these projects. And when I say involvement, I don’t mean just getting involved on a superficial level. It’s important that when you participate in a project that there’s a continued growth of involvement over time — this type of involvement will help students develop the critical skillsets that will allow them to enter into a job and hit the ground running. So start as a freshman in a support role and work to increase your involvement so that by your senior year you are leading a team or perhaps the entire project.

More than anything, passion is important. I cannot emphasize this enough. What has driven me my entire career is loving what I do. I honestly can say that I’ve never had a day in my career where I didn’t enjoy what I was working on. That makes the long hours and hard work all worth it. As such, find something about space that that interests you. When you love what you do, you’ll be inspired to commit more of yourself to understanding your craft and will naturally make yourself a more knowledgeable person in your field — and this will pay dividends professionally when people rely on you as an expert.

What can or should the space industry do to as a whole to get more folks involved?

I would say the most important thing is that we have to reduce the barriers and the cost of getting into space. I think that we are on a path to getting there with capabilities like LauncherOne. A lot of companies are already getting into small satellites because they realized that the barriers to entry are fairly low. So if we can continue to lower the cost of getting into space, then it is going to go a long way in developing the space ecosystem.

Space has been a chicken and egg problem for the longest time; getting to the next step as an industry requires that something give. That something is launch. I think if we can lower the cost and ease of launch, then it is naturally going to generate more interest in going to space.