February 10, 2023 | NEWS | By Konoha Tomono-Duval
This week, I spoke with Erik Daehler ‘98, the professor behind this year’s PC210 Investigations in Engineering and a CC alum. We met in his office right after the end of the Half Block to discuss liberal arts engineering, idealism in business and his long career in aerospace.
Could you say who you are and what you do?
I’m the vice president of orbital systems and services for Sierra Space Corporation. Our goals are to create an on-orbital space station where we can do real research and development for private companies and private citizens and change the way that we interact with space. We’re developing two unmanned space planes right now called Dream Chaser. The DC100 program is on contract with NASA to bring up cargo to the International Space Station. Our second vehicle will be the Dream Chaser 200, which will be a manned version to bring up astronauts and researchers to our space station. And then we’re partnering [with Blue Origin] to develop what we call our Destination, which is an on-orbit space station called Orbital Reef.
My organization inside of Sierra Space is going to be responsible for developing all of the satellites that provide support services to these two key areas. So that means service and maintenance of the station, robotic transfer of objects to and from the station, and recovery.
One of the concepts in this system is to deliver objects that are made in space directly to point-of-use need. So, an example is, we think we can develop organs in space that you couldn’t grow in gravity conditions and that we can grow better in space. Being able to directly drop those down to a hospital, to the helicopter landing pad on top of a hospital for a direct organ transplant would be the ideal situation.
What first got you interested in engineering?
I was going to be an engineer from the moment I was born. At probably seven years old, my parents said, “he seems to know what he’s going to do, and it seems to be building and taking apart stuff.” I always knew it was going to be space or cars. When I was at CC, I chose the background in physics because I really had no idea what being an engineer was. And as I was going through my coursework, I remember a couple of moments where my professors helped me build clarity. The first was when Barbara Witten, my advisor at the time, gave me a book called The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. And what it taught me was that engineering is creation.
The second thing that I learned was that failure was an important part of becoming who you are. The second major contributor to my decision to go into engineering was Stephanie DiCenzo. And when Stephanie helped me to understand that I didn’t quite understand thermal engineering enough to pass the class, I had to make a decision. She could let me retake the final and get a barely passing grade. Or she could help me understand that, if [I was] going into engineering, I really needed to understand thermodynamics. It’s important to know that you learn from challenges. And if you haven’t learned it well enough, go and continue to learn it or learn it again until you really get it.
How has going into engineering as a liberal arts student has shaped how you approach the field? What do you think the benefits and drawbacks are?
I spent this last Half Block, PC210, talking a lot about the superpowers that come from a liberal arts education. It allows us to see how different disciplines and different classes that we’ve taken can relate to our jobs in the future. One of my favorite classes that I took was race, class and gender. Very interesting course, taught by Tomi-Ann Roberts. I’ve gotten into aerospace and defense, which has been a notoriously white male dominated industry. Just go look at the pictures of the Apollo landing, where everybody has the same crew cut and the same white collared shirt and the same black tie. What I learned going into my industry was that diversity of thought, diversity of culture, of background, of interests, it really is a superpower that we can bring to the industry. So, I encourage all of you to think about how that diversity can apply to your specific industry, not just aerospace and defense or engineering. Every place you go to, you’re going to think differently about the world.
One thing I want to make sure that everyone in Colorado College understands is that you come with something very different to the marketplace as an employee. Don’t try to compete the way that everybody else is competing. Think about yourself differently. Look at the industries that you’re going into and think about the places you could be that maybe are non-traditional. Leverage your creativity, learn fast, apply yourself quickly and show what the block plan has done to make you different.
I understand that you switched from what was a fairly prestigious position in Lockheed-Martin and that you made this move [to Sierra Space] to what was considered at the time a risky startup. What went into that calculation?
I started out my career thinking that I would always go and work for a small startup. I have the DNA to be able to take more risks. I look at the amount of change that you can make when you’re in a smaller company and that excites me.
Somehow, I stumbled into working for the largest prime contractors in aerospace and defense for almost 23 years of my career. [I] started out at Lockheed Martin, moved to the Boeing company and then moved back to Lockheed Martin. I had great opportunities to move around in both of those companies, working on everything from submarine systems to spacecraft to airplanes to network solutions. And with the diversity of jobs, I never felt the need to leave the companies. I’ve always followed good leaders and found that good leaders really can make or break your relationship with a company. And at one point in time, I had an opportunity to start thinking differently about who I was working for and where I was going to go.
The other calculus that I had was the ability to make my role be what I had dreamed of doing my entire career. I had always wanted to stand up a business, to see it form from scratch around something that I idealistically wanted to see succeed. Real research on a space platform accessible to the general public was huge to me.
On that subject of idealism vs. realism: How do you feel about the crisis between doing public good through businesses versus the fear of becoming part of the system?
I left CC as an idealist, as many of us do. And I quickly learned that the best way to accomplish things in life was to figure out how the systems work. Part of that is engineering and I’m an engineer by background and trade. I like to learn how complex systems work. And so, I personally learned how not only the corporations but also government policy, government funding, and global politics played a role in the way we changed the world. I also set up some important red lines for myself personally, to make sure I didn’t lose my idealism and those personal red lines have made decisions for me in my life.
I didn’t ever want to build weapons systems. Of course, by working for the largest aerospace and defense contractors, a huge part of their role is to make weapons systems. I also understood that those are a reality of the world we live in. So, I focused my energy on making those systems more precise, with better levels of intelligence information behind them, with smarter targeting and with smarter use, so that they didn’t get used. And if they did get used, I wanted to make sure that the collateral damage was minimized.
At the same time, when you are improving the accuracy of a guided missile, that’s still contributing to building a guided missile. Did you find a conflict in that?
I think there’s conflict in everything we do in life. The challenges associated with the fact that I love flying on airplanes and I know that airplanes contribute a huge amount to greenhouse gasses. And so, with everything, you have to check your moral compass and understand that there are gray areas and that nothing is black and white in life. As I’ve matured through my career and matured through my own personal understanding of myself, I’ve asked those questions. And I’ve also not been afraid to ask them out loud with peers, with confidants, and mentors that I trusted.
Well, thank you very much, Mr. Daehler.
I appreciate your time, thank you.