A day in the life of a Principal Space Architect 🚀Featured

Hi Elphas! My name is Isa. I’m an aerospace engineer at the space propulsion startup Tesseract Space. As the Principal Space Architect, I conceptualize, design, build, and test space solutions for an array of engineering products. At Tesseract we build rocket engines and their full support systems, so my products look like propulsion modules that take a customer’s spacecraft from a launch vehicle drop off (like SpaceX) to where it needs to operate. Sometimes the goal is to help a small satellite take imagery and move around low Earth orbit. Sometimes I’m designing a mega system that can take a spacecraft even further – like to the Moon or Mars. The propulsion systems scale in physical size too, some fit in your hand and some are bigger than a refrigerator. Each day and week at work looks very different. I’m guessing that has a lot to do with our startup size and fast paced iterating, and I’m curious if your days are variable, too!One of the things I love about my job is the ability to define and grow my career. Right now my job is a beautiful hybrid of product management, orbital dynamics, proposal writing, sales wrangling, chemical handling, systems engineering, ground test crew, and working in the machine shop. You know – all the usual things one does! This week is starting out heavy on the computing side for example. I’ve got a decent amount of mathematical calculations to check for a customer, and some systems engineering writing to complete for one of the products I’m managing. Then this week we have five different rocket engine tests! This means that I’ll lead the oxidizer loading procedures in the lab and work out at the test site as ground test crew for live engine firings. So. Cool.I gained my technical management and orbital dynamics skills in previous jobs and am growing those skills and building new ones daily (like machine shop confidence and chemical handling). I’ve always been a hands-on girl, so this is a good balance for me. One thing I’m really excited to learn more about is the world of fundraising and pitching. As a company we’re planning the next fundraising round so I’ve been learning all about what that “means” – like how to build a deck and understanding how investment works in general. We’re a small team now (currently seven), so I’ve been trying to help and learn as much as possible. My favorite astronaut Chris Hadfield says “focus on the journey, not on arriving at a certain destination” so I’m still not 100% sure what role I want to do when I grow up, but I’m guessing it will be blended. Startups are great for folks like me and my colleagues at Tesseract really have fostered my growth, both technically and personally.Thank you for your time! Let me know if you have any questions or want to talk about space with me. :-)Isa Peterson is an inquisitive astronautical engineer with a background in orbital mechanics, spacecraft mission design, and manufacturing. Her experience includes numerous commercial programs ranging from geostationary orbit raising, spacecraft mechanical testing, and proposal/product development. Isa loves learning, dancing, and product development. She wants to be an astronaut when she grows up.
Hi Isa! Thanks for sharing your experience with us. A few questions for you because I'm intrigued by your job :DSince the rocket engines and their full support systems are different for each customer, how do you come up with your test plans and where do you do your testing for the bigger propulsion systems? How much prep time goes into preparing for testing?
Thanks for asking! You're correct - each customer will have a tailored end solution for their mission, but we're striving to standardize certain criteria (like testing procedures) for each product line. The test plans are built to ensure workmanship, thrust and Isp performance of the engine, as well as any upgrades to the avionics and hardware for the mission's lifetime. The larger propulsion systems definitely require a unique testing setup due to the physical size and TNT equivalence of the pressurized systems. Right now, we're testing the 450N engine at the Livermore Airport and eventually hope to have an office space to accommodate the testing indoors. As you can imagine, the tarmac gets really hot when it's 92F outside!Before the stand was built, we spent a solid amount of time creating and running through the procedures for testing. During test days, I usually spend a few hours before the engine test verifying the test stand with a colleague. My colleague and I verify the stand's state, load the oxidizer and fuel, and slowly pressurize the system. Once everything is ready and safe, then we conduct the rocket engine test fires and/or performance demonstrations. The test preparations (and then test firing) take a full day - about 10hrs!
Hi Isa!I'm curious about the types of customers you are targeting, are they large more industry oriented or smaller companies and groups (re:cubesats)? I'm also curious about what regulations are set up surrounding these types of propulsion systems (regulations for sending to space, regulations for being within a launch vehicle)? Additionally, what kind of liability does Tesseract Space take on once the devices are launched?Finally, related to your position, as your title is very technical but also being at a start up, what kind of opportunities do you have that you would not have at a large or more traditional aerospace company?
We're hoping to target a swath of customers with our three product lines. We're developing integrated propulsion modules for the CubeSat ( less than 1N thrust class) and SmallSat (ESPA / LaunchU, 1- 22N class) form factors as well as a launch vehicle (LV) upper stage or exploration stage (450N class engine). The 450N stage is ideal for missions that need to operate in an orbit outside of LV capabilities or for deep space missions. Liability and reliability for space applications is an interesting topic and measured by "Probability of Success". At Tesseract we design our systems to meet the customer Probability of Success for their mission, which can vary from operating perfectly 15yrs on orbit to operating for less than 1yr. It feeds into hardware choice (and total cost), but we accommodate different missions and their success criteria in our builds.You're 100% on - I came in with a solidly technical background, and while I still flex those muscles regularly I am seeing that there are so many opportunities for me to grow here. Other than the hands-on machine shop experience, I'm growing my business acumen. This has been very eye opening to me, especially in a startup light. I had NO idea how this world works, and every day I am learning something new about business and strategy. I love strategic thinking and it feels very empowering to help steer our corporate direction and development. The learning opportunities at Tesseract are crazy awesome and it would have taken a literal lifetime of work to get anywhere near the exposure that I have now.
Thanks so much for the response - also looks like there was suppose to be something after the "(" in the first paragraph, just checking to see if something was missing.
Little display but that we've fixed. Sorry for that!
Hi Isa-Thanks for taking time to share your experience on Elpha! I'm absolutely FASCINATED by what you are doing! Other than fundraising and investment what other boxes are you looking to "tick" moving forward in your career with Tesseract. It seems like you are covering a lot of ground professionally, already so very curious to understand what you hope to accomplish on the horizon?Thanks for your time!
Thanks Whitney! I'm hoping to refine different flavors of project management (old industry methodology only works so well at startups) as well as more machine shop skills. I'm *so very excited* to learn how to TIG weld!
What you're doing is so cool, Isa! Thank you for sharing your story with us!
This is so cool! Thank you so much for sharing your insights!
Thanks for sharing your insights and inspiring us , Isa. Good luck !
Thank you so much for sharing - I'm curious if you have ever thought of starting something yourself since you are so accomplished?
Aw you made me blush! :) You know, it's definitely something I've always wanted to do - to be a founding member of a company. I'm not sure if it's imposter syndrome or what, but I've never had an idea that I felt would be strong enough to start a company with. I used to run a hobby side-hustle making geeky jewelry, and painfully learned profit margins, customer targeting and the likes. I'm seeing company growth now as an early employee which is a next step in learning. Maybe one of these days I'll have an "ah-hah!" moment and pull the trigger... and I'm happy now to still be learning how to do it right.
Oh super cool - I've done the jewelry thing too! It's a lot of fun!
Thank you so much for sharing Isa! Very very exciting stuff