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Juli Lawless knows no bounds



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Amid mews from her three foster kittens, Inverse spoke to Lawless about taking power back in her education, bringing “old space” and “new space” together, and being good enough.

There’s something about Jupiter.

The largest planet in our solar system, it’s named after the king of the Roman gods. It exudes an energy that is both powerful and benevolent, unlike its red sibling Mars. Its movement in Gustav Holst’s The Planets is titled “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” and features bombastic brass and timpani to evoke the friendly gas giant.

Jupiter captivated from a young age. She was fascinated by its duality: an outward beauty that belied an inner, uninhabitable chaos. Lawless, too, contains dualities. Both a dancer and a thinker, she felt not taken seriously by classmates in college. Her career has led her through government and private-sector space companies. Now, she is the director of business development for national defense at private aerospace company Made In Space, where she bridges the two sectors.

Amid mews from her three foster kittens, Inverse spoke to Lawless about taking power back in her education, bringing “old space” and “new space” together, and being good enough.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What was your first experience with space?

In third grade, we first learned about astronomy and the solar system. I had always liked math and science class, but that was the first time I was beyond excited about education. I came home from school so — pun intended — over the moon, and I remember telling my parents that I was going to see the Earth from the outside of it.

From there, I started writing letters to NASA and getting them to mail me all these pamphlets just so I could continue to learn. I told them my favorite planet was Jupiter, and they would send stacks and stacks of information.

I also put [glow-in-the-dark] stars in my bedroom, but I actually did it in celestial order. My parents wanted to send me to space camp, but we couldn’t afford it at the time, so they just encouraged me to keep getting involved in what local STEM activities there were.

What did you think an astronaut did when you were a kid? How was that different from what they actually do?

When I was a kid, I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut. I thought that they just got to ride in spaceships and look at planets. I don’t think I fully understood that we had only gone as far as the Moon, and that those really cool pictures of Saturn’s rings were taken by cameras and satellites. One of the reasons I decided not to be an astronaut is because I learned that, basically, they train their entire lives and the majority of them don’t actually ever go into space. That disappointment of possibly working your entire career and never actually getting to see the Earth from outside of it was pretty discouraging.

Another thing is that a lot of what’s done by astronauts is on the International Space Station, but a lot of it is geology and biology. Those are great sciences, and I think it’s very important work that they’re doing, but I wanted to study astronomy and aerospace engineering and space.

I told my brother that I was going to be an astronomer instead. And he said, “Absolutely not, because you’re not going to live in my basement one day.” And I was like, “Okay, well, I want to work in space. What do I do?” And he’s like, “You should be an aerospace engineer.” I think I was 12 at the time, and he’s my older brother. So I just decided that day forward that I was going to be an aerospace engineer, and the rest is history.

Were there any points along the way when you questioned your decision to go into aerospace engineering?

Yeah, absolutely. College was really tough for me. I grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. It has great school systems, but we didn’t have some of the programs I felt like a lot of my classmates had, like robotics and engineering courses in high school. I really felt like I was thrown to the sharks, diving into aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland. And then there was a lot of sexism, and it was really discouraging. There were eight of us in a class of 80. It was a lot of mistreatment and underestimating how smart I was. I was asked to be on classmates’ teams for projects not because they thought I was smart; they just wanted to flirt with me the whole time. I actually almost dropped out several times. I thought, “Maybe I’ll just go be a science teacher.”

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