Serial Entrepreneur Chronically Ahead of her Time

Debra Facktor Lepore, Strategic Operations Vice President and General Manager Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. Credit: Tom Kimmell

Debra Facktor Lepore, Strategic Operations Vice President and General Manager Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. Credit: Tom Kimmell

The influence of women in space is expanding as more and more move into leading roles in government and industry. This is the first in an occasional series of profiles of the space industry’s leading women.

IIn the late 1990s, Debra Facktor Lepore helped raise $600 million in private capital for Kistler Aerospace, a commercial startup developing a fully reusable rocket to send telecommunications satellites into low Earth orbit. It was more money than any commercial launch venture had ever raised, but still wasn’t enough to see the venture through multiple setbacks.

When the telecommunications satellite market collapsed in the face of terrestrial competition, Facktor Lepore, then Kistler’s vice president for business development and strategic planning, helped the company pivot. It offered NASA an unsolicited proposal in 1999 to transport cargo to the International Space Station on a commercial rocket.

Although Kistler did not survive, the company’s technology and former employees continue to spur innovation in reusable rockets and government contracting methods, Facktor Lepore said.

Facktor Lepore began her career with the not-for-profit research firm Analytic Services, or ANSER. In the wake of the Cold War, she served as Moscow operations chief for ANSER’s Center for International Aerospace Cooperation. There, she helped establish joint aerospace projects between Western and former Soviet organizations.

In 2005, Facktor Lepore became president of AirLaunch LLC, a small company that won funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Air Force to develop a launch vehicle to send small satellites into space from a C-17 cargo plane.

Facktor Lepore, who joined Ball Aerospace in 2013, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan. Prior to joining Ball, she helped the Stevens Institute of Technology expand its systems engineering education and research program.

You’ve been ahead of your time in many areas.
Guilty. That’s why I’m so excited when I see some of the next-generation startups. I believe that what we at Kistler and other startups of the time did was help shape and pave the way for many things today. That era produced a lot of experiences that now are being translated in new ways.

Your career has been focused on improving space access. How do you view the progress that’s been made?
Really good progress and more to go. Our current commercial systems were enabled by the work of many people and technologies over many years. A lot of that has been in the acquisition environment, as the government moved toward commercial data buys and commercial contracts.

The first wave of commercial and privately funded launch vehicles was stimulated by the low Earth orbit telecommunications constellations, which drove a demand for lower cost, responsive and reliable launch. As the markets changed with Iridium, Globalstar and Teledesic going away, new opportunities were enabled after the shuttle Columbia accident helped prompt International Space Station resupply. Progress has been made by the persistence of entrepreneurs who know there are new ways to get to space.

You also led AirLaunch. Do you still believe in that approach?
I do. Air launching gives several advantages with the operational side of space. You can fly the aircraft in the direction you want to go for orbital mechanics. So you get low energy launch. It gives you a lot of flexibility. That’s what made [Orbital ATK’s] Pegasus rocket attractive and made AirLaunch attractive.

Early in your career, you were an advocate for Russian engines in American rockets. Are you still?
I’m an advocate of strong investment in propulsion, which is something that the U.S. hasn’t done in a long time. The use of Russian engines was very timely back then because from a foreign policy standpoint we were working closely with the former Soviet Union to find the right technical opportunities for Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan to join with Western aerospace entities both government and commercial. Russia had some capabilities and propulsion was one of those.

Today you still have foreign policy and technical considerations. The market is different. I’m glad to see renewed and refreshed investment in propulsion and recognition that we need options. From Ball’s perspective, we love all launchers equally. Our space systems need to get into space in the most reliable, cost effective, responsive way.

You’re a member of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee. What key issues does the panel face?
Who in our government is in charge of space traffic management and space situational awareness? Today we’re seeing remarkable coordination among industry, civil space and Defense Department agencies about the need for someone to oversee this activity. FAA AST seems to be the logical regulatory authority.

We‘ve been looking at mission licenses for space activities that don’t fit into the launch or reentry part and are not part of the telecommunications infrastructure. There hasn’t been a home for thinking about all this new commercial and international activity in space. Industry never wants over-regulation. At the same time, it wants regulation that makes sense to allow everybody to carry out business plans with some predictability.

You are a former board chair of Women in Aerospace and founding president of the Women in Aerospace Foundation. How would you describe the progress women have made during your career?
Great progress and still more progress needed. What excites me is to see many more women in senior and executive positions in industry and government. We have women chief executives. Deborah Lee James is the Secretary of the Air Force. Betty Sapp is the National Reconnaissance Office director. Shana Dale is the FAA AST deputy associate administrator. This is good because you want women to have opportunities throughout their career and at the highest levels. I’m encouraged to see many more women in senior and executive ranks because that has traditionally been a difficult area to break into.

Our industry is still predominantly male. It’s important to select and create opportunities for good people and to do that with diversity. Getting a diverse team involved in problem solving is important.