Gary Pulliam on Commercial Space

Gary Pulliam has been with Aerospace for 18 years. Photo: Eric Hamburg

Gary Pulliam, vice president of Civil and Commercial Operations, will be retiring this fall. Before he leaves Aerospace, we thought we would get his perspective on commercial space and his time at Aerospace.

Pulliam has 18 years of experience at Aerospace and has been vice president of Civil and Commercial Operations since 2004. He also spent 20 years in the Air Force, working as a pilot, a flight instructor, and holding several positions in the Pentagon.

How have things changed in commercial space during your career?

Gary Pulliam: In the earlier days of my career at Aerospace, we saw the explosion of commercial space into the communications market. Several new companies formed to place dozens of satellites into low-Earth orbit to provide telephone, business, and video services worldwide. But then we saw almost all of these companies fall into bankruptcy. Looking back, we can tell that the time to market for a new satellite constellation was too long compared to the speed with which the terrestrial communications companies could expand. But this era informed us that commercial opportunities in space were abundant.

More recently, we’ve experienced the rapid move toward commercial space as providers of key capabilities and services for our citizens and government agencies. We now buy commercial imagery, and NASA is using commercial launch vehicles for space station resupply.

What do you see when you look to the future of commercial space?

GP: Literally, the potential is unlimited. Some number of years from now, commercial space companies, both for the launch vehicle and the spacecraft, will provide much of what we now procure through classic government acquisition programs.

What impact do you see Aerospace having on future commercial space endeavors?

GP: And that’s the most important question for Aerospace in the next decade. While we fully support commercial space ventures, it’s still a tough business. It’s still “one strike and you’re out.” And insurance cannot replace the lost capability for our warfighters should a failure occur. So Aerospace must continue to offer key contributions to ensuring mission success for our nation’s space programs. But we will provide that service differently than we have in the past.

Different in what way?

GP: I expect these changes in commercial space will require a different kind of service from Aerospace to our customers. It’s possible we will have contracts directly with the contractors to provide mission assurance. It’s also possible we will need to help our government customers determine how to ensure mission success with commercially procured systems. At any rate, Aerospace will need to determine our value proposition for mission assurance in this changing commercial landscape. I know we are already working that issue on some SMC satellite programs, and we’re working with NASA on their commercial crew program.

What are some important lessons you have learned during your career?

GP: That it’s a team sport all the way. Great things can be accomplished when no one is concerned about who gets the credit. That managers and leaders manage and lead best when inspiring as much as possible and directing as little as possible. That people will astound you with their accomplishments if you encourage them, empower them, and get out of their way.

What do you consider your biggest career achievement in the civil and commercial space field?

GP: Civil and Commercial Operations has enjoyed some spectacular achievements over the past few years. We were instrumental in the long decision path that led to the final servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope. We were key contributors to the debris analyses that led to getting the orbiter back into space following the February 2003 Columbia disaster. We were thrust into the national spotlight as the technical and analytical team supporting the Augustine Commission. These were all high-risk, high-visibility, and high-exposure endeavors for our team. I am very proud of the work we did, the courage our team displayed, and the positive contribution each of these projects had on our nation’s space program.

Is there anything you would do differently now that you have the benefit of hindsight?

GP: For my career in general, not a thing. I’ve been very blessed to work in many places with wonderful and talented people. One thing I learned over many years is that there need not be only one successful career path. Go with your heart and take opportunities when they arise, and life will be good. On the more specific side, I’ve made many mistakes along the way, and hindsight is always 20/20. Generally, I would seek more counsel, think it through one more time, and ask that unasked question before proceeding.

Do you have any memorable stories that you would like to share?

GP: One story that’s funny now, but dangerous then, happened during a hearing before the House Science Committee. I was one of the witnesses, and, as usual, members of Congress were coming in and out throughout the hearing. Toward the end, a congressman was recognized for questions. He began by stating something like, “Mr. Chairman, my remarks will be directed to Mr. Pulliam. Mr. Pulliam, I would like you to know that I graduated with an engineering degree and applied for a job at Aerospace but was not accepted for the opening. With that background, let’s proceed to my questions.” Without thinking, I leaned forward, pressed my microphone off mute and stated, “We’re still hiring, congressman!” The room erupted with laughter, so it worked out OK. I’m not sure that I would recommend spontaneous responses like that when testifying before Congress.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

GP: It has been a real honor to work at Aerospace for 18 years. I will miss the people and the work tremendously.

—Allison Barker