Monday, December 19, 2016

A Moment of Silence for Swiss Space Systems

Taken September 2015 at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C.

I received the email the same day I got engaged. I had been waiting months for this email, wondering if it would ever really happen. I've had unofficial job offers dangled in front of me in the past, only to become disappointed when they never materialized into paper. Live and learn.

It was a Saturday evening in Florida in May 2013 when I accepted a LinkedIn invitation and struck up a conversation with a stranger in Hong Kong who was part of a team creating a “new space” start-up in Switzerland. It was ambitious and intriguing. He asked me for assistance setting up a meeting in Florida. I was happy to help.

I met the team for a pre-meeting breakfast in July, then again at the Florida office grand opening in March 2014. I met with the man who would head the U.S. subsidiary, my future boss, twice one-on-one. The delays in the start of operations worried me only slightly. I took it as a sign that they were being extra cautious before jumping into the U.S. market.

On August 29, 2014, Swiss Space Systems' US subsidiary S3 USA asked me to run their Florida office. With a shiny new ring on my left hand, I said yes to both the marriage proposal and the job. I finally began two months later. The intent was for me to start hiring employees for the office right away in preparation for parabolic “Zero G” flights that would begin out of Kennedy Space Center's huge SLF runway the following year.

The business plan seemed solid to me. With investments and partners, S3 would purchase and modify a large plane to begin parabolic flights for research and tourism. With that income, funds would be available to build their spaceplane which would fly suborbital flights across the world. Eventually, a small satellite launcher would be added to the suborbital vehicle to launch small satellites into orbit. They even had a smallsat customer lined up. The Swiss are known for their meticulous attention to detail and deep pockets. They sold me on the dream.

Up to that point, I had worked for two space start-ups, both with varying degrees of challenges and successes. I entered into the position eyes wide open. I knew there was a high risk of failure. At that stage of my career, I was willing to take the chance. And I lost.

Hiring a staff never happened. Financial troubles began to trickle down to me in February. It wasn't long before previous months' of paychecks were added to the list of company promises. I was kept out of the loop for the most part. I started part-time tutoring math, physics, and exam prep on the side. I hadn't even reached a year with S3 before being encouraged by my boss to look for other opportunities. The difficulty was, I was pregnant and far along, so beginning a new full-time job at that time was impractical.

December 2015. The sweet front desk administrator at Space Florida's Space Life Science Lab gave me a surprise baby shower gift around the same I was clearing out the S3 Florida office. It wasn't pregnancy hormones that caused me to cry in my empty office. It was only because my immediate boss is a truly decent, protecting, generous human being was I able to give birth with health insurance that S3 HQ had cut off the month prior. As 2015 came to a close, so did my employment with the Swiss space start-up that wasn't meant to be.

With notice of its bankruptcy last week, I'd like to take a moment of silence to reflect on the short life and long decline of Swiss Space Systems. As I unpack my belongs in my new home this month, I find reminders: a stack of holographic bookmarks, a bomber jacket, a spaceplane pin, and a high-quality print-out of a graphically rendered spaceplane that hung in the S3 Florida office. Long gone, S3 will always hold a place in my memory.

Lesson learned. By wary of start-ups. But it's okay to take that chance sometimes. You never know what will happen if the dreamers succeed.

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