We have all heard criticisms of the “revolving door” of senior military generals retiring and finding employment outside of government, but what is often overlooked is their burning desire to continue to make a difference. Even tough-as-nails officers get misty-eyed at their retirement ceremonies, because they know the gravity of their commitment and the honor it is to lead thousands of young men and women dedicated to defending our country against its enemies.
Generals are a rare breed, even harder to come by than the so-called “unicorns” of Silicon Valley fame. Though confirmed by Congress, they are not appointed by political patronage the way civilians can be, and they do not inherit the rank as in other parts of the world. They rise to the highest levels of a vast meritocracy driven by a zealous sense of duty, and when they retire, many of these decorated generals seek to do something where they can still make a difference for the country they love.
In the last few years, there has been a pattern of retiring military members moving into the new entrepreneurial space economy. They are deliberately choosing not to take the well-worn path of joining major defense contractors and instead are opting to work for small, agile, highly disruptive start-ups. I was able to catch up with a few of these individuals who were comfortable talking about their professional transition after military service. It seems for each, the oath they took when they were just 18 years old is more deeply seared into their identity than they even realized.
Dave Mann, a retired three-star general with 35 years in the Army, understands precisely what today’s soldiers need to win. He believes his service background gives him unique insights into how smallsats can help the soldier in a tactical fight and applies this experience to his current role as a Vice President at PredaSAR, a commercial radar company. He is all too aware of the value of lifesaving intelligence information the “grunt” needs, and he sees the next generation of smallsats as exactly what’s needed to get real-time information to the warfighter. That’s the next big step for the Space Force, and Mann’s company and others in the smallsat business are eager to contribute.
Mark Baird is a retired USAF general, whose storied space career leading launch acquisitions dates all the way back to the EELV competition in the early 1990’s, a program that stands apart for its perfect launch record to this day. He credited his experiences outside of launch operations that motivated him to make the leap to the NewSpace world. He was very impressed with the incredible talent and patriotism he saw at Lockheed Martin after he retired. But it was “the innovation, initiative, and drive” at Virgin Orbit that he saw as critical to advancing a true Hybrid Space Architecture approach to our next generation warfighting capabilities for space. Ever the watchdog, Baird worries about a “Space Pearl Harbor” and being caught unprepared. “Shifting to responsive operations in space will be hard for this new generation of space force leaders, but it is essential” – said Mark.
Mike Carey, co-founder and current COO at Atlas Space Operations, is another retired USAF general. Carey has never been one to shy away from a challenge, either against the enemy during the Cold War or the Washington bureaucrats who can “work” on a problem without making any progress. When he witnessed the certification of Elon Musk’s Falcon 9, he knew this would usher in a new space era for smallsats. Taking his entrepreneurial spirit and operational experience working with the antiquated satellite networks the Air Force uses, he created a company that is successfully flying satellites for the military today. Carey is enthusiastic that Atlas can perform these functions at a fraction the cost of the old way he learned on active duty, and he’s excited about the innovations his company is bringing to the Space Force in the years to come.
Roger Teague, another retired USAF general, is most famous for turning around the ailing Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) program years ago and is still credited for its brilliant on-orbit success today. After a stint as a Vice President at Boeing, he also made the jump to the smallsat world, first as the founding CEO of PredaSAR, and now as the President of Defense and Intelligence Systems at Terran Orbital. Teague, like Baird, also sees the Hybrid Space Architecture as the key to architectural resiliency for national security space. “To be successful in the future,” he said, “we must present a wide variety of systems, tools, and capabilities to drive future mission success.”
Boris Becker just recently retired after a long career in the Navy. As an admiral, he was directing all the Navy’s space programs after an early career as a naval aviator. He too went right into this new space economy following his retirement from the service, taking over as CEO of Tyvak – one of the earliest companies to begin building cubesats at scale. Why go there rather than the more traditional defense supplier or consulting gigs? “I am excited by the pace with which the smallsat community can operate,” Becker told me recently. He’s thrilled by the steady pace of development enabled by private capital, and how that can bring sorely needed capabilities to the fight. He now sees how these new commercial capabilities, delivered at an accelerated rate compared to the old methods, are absolutely critical to our nation’s security.
Each of these flag officers had an earful of advice for those still serving on active duty. Ever the entrepreneur, Mike Carey reminds them to always stay optimistic, work hard, and perhaps most importantly, “trust your gut and your people!” Mark Baird managed to articulate what continues to drive each of them to this day, “You never really take your uniform off.”
Unsurprisingly, all these individuals are quite bullish on our country’s space future and are excited about the ways in which their new companies can enhance America’s economy and its warfighting capabilities. Each one credits the experiences and the people they served with to give them the mission understanding that has helped make them successful today. With that said, it is their service mindset and duty-oriented drive – first in serving our country among the ranks of our military and now as veterans in support of our industry and national defense – which will ultimately tip the scales in our favor.
So, in honor of our nation’s 100th Veteran’s Day, thank you to all our veterans for your service to our country – whether it was decades of deployments to hostile areas as these retired warriors gave, or one enlistment served stateside. Voluntarily dedicating years of your life to a mission more important than your own personal well-being is rare and being willing to make the ultimate sacrifice is even rarer. Lastly, to those who, like these now retired officers, continue to be the best examples of service even after they’ve retired their stars – thank you.