Inside the Mind of a Young Professional: A Conversation with Sirisha Bandla
When did you first realize that you had a strong interest in space?
I was always one of those kids that wanted to be an astronaut and go into space, and that’s something that I never grew out of. I grew up in Houston, Texas, so we had Johnson Space Center right down the street. We took a lot of field trips there and it really instilled in my mind how cool space was to me. Growing up I really wanted to go the Air Force route, to become a pilot in the Air Force, basically follow the Top Gun Path and then eventually become a NASA astronaut. I was really convinced that was my path and that was how I would be involved in the space industry. Unfortunately, I also had very bad eyesight, so in high school I realized that I did not meet the requirements for becoming a pilot or an astronaut.
In 2004 SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize and became the first private vehicle to travel into space multiple times. That accomplishment really put me back on my path; it showed me that NASA was not the only way, and that I could still follow my passion and travel into space. From there on I decided to become an aerospace engineer, so I could hopefully align myself with the growing commercial space sector.
What influenced you to stray from the typical engineering post-graduate education path and pursue your MBA at George Washington University instead?
I love learning, but I’m really more of a hands-on learner as opposed to in-class learner, which is why I loved the co-op program at Purdue so much. I went to school for one full year, and then every semester after that I interned at an engineering company. That experience really helped me develop my skills and put them to actual use. Once I got my bachelor’s degree, I was one of those people that knew they did not want to go back to school right away. As I started working, I realized that the one thing I didn’t get from my education at Purdue was a business aspect. I had the opportunity to continue my education while I was working, so I decided to get my MBA and started looking deeper into the commercial and business aspects of the space industry, as opposed to a solely technological perspective.
What was your experience like getting to work on the Purdue Zero-Gravity Team and having the opportunity to fly one of your experiments in microgravity?
It was amazing. Getting the opportunity to fly in zero-gravity was like nothing I could ever fully describe. I am so grateful that this program existed at NASA and Purdue at the time. I got to see a project go through the proposal process and get fully funded, which I had never experienced before as a student. It taught me a lot about project management from start to finish, which was a great experience for me. I also learned a lot about working on a team and dealing with conflict resolution and communication, and those skills are very useful to have. I learned so much more from that project than just microgravity applications.
The Telugu Association of North America (TANA) is the oldest and biggest Indo-American organization in North America. Can you share with us what it was like to receive the TANA Youth Star Award?
Typically there isn’t a lot of connection between my family life and what I do for my career in the space industry, so to be recognized for some of the work that I’m doing in the space community by another community I’m part of was really special. It’s always great getting to talk about something I care about with the people that I care about, and my whole family was able to attend the TANA awards ceremony. That year I was one of two people recognized for achievements in space, so it was great to be able to meet new people and connect with others within the community.
What is the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship Program and how did you become involved with the program?
After college, I ended up interviewing for a space policy job in DC at the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. I got that job and my predecessor, who basically gave me a crash course on what space policy is, was Matthew Isakowitz. Matthew was the first person to really bring me into the space policy community. Prior to that, I didn’t have a real appreciation for the role policy plays in a lot of our decisions and programs.
Unfortunately, Matthew passed away in 2017. Matthew always had a rare, great understanding of policy, business, and engineering. His family wanted to focus and emulate that understanding in the future generations, so they started the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship program. They brought me on board to help organize their first-year efforts. Last year we had 24 fellows that were juniors, seniors, or post-grad in an engineering field. We placed them in a commercial company, so they could gain experience in an entrepreneurial space focused environment. We also paired them with an external mentor, which added that mentorship aspect to the fellowship as well. We want this experience to be more than just an internship – it’s something that builds a community and allows each class of fellows to pass on what they’ve learned to the next class of fellows and to those around them.
Now that we have covered most of your background, what does your current position with Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit entail?
I work in government affairs, so I am basically the nexus for the two companies. We have a small office in Washington D.C.; a lean but mean team, that is the center of government relations for both companies. We engage with policy makers on policies that help grow the commercial industry, as well as balance out the growth of our industry with the growing regulations. One of the things that I work on is helping the business development of payloads for SpaceShipTwo. I work with a team to get payloads from universities and commercial research companies ready for high-quality microgravity research on SpaceShipTwo. I’m really interested in seeing our platforms used for research development and science applications!
As someone that comes from a diverse educational background, what advice would you give to young professionals that are interested in getting more involved with the space industry?
I would definitely say to seek out all sorts of opportunities to learn more, whether that be joining a club at school or something as simple as emailing someone in the industry that you are interested in learning from. Talk [with them] about what it actually takes to be involved in the space industry. I love our industry because we are all in it for the love of space. Our passion for space connects us all, and we love to think about the future of the industry and those that will follow in our footsteps. It is very easy to find someone in this industry willing to talk to you about their passions and willing to help you get further involved; whether from a technological standpoint or those that help support these functions. It’s a great feeling to be connected by that type of passion, so reach out!
Finally, In what ways would you like to see the space industry evolve in the upcoming years?
I think we are at a turning point right now, where there are a lot of vehicles that are on the edge of offering commercial services. From a policy view, we need to keep the doors open so this innovation can continue without regulatory and legislative burdens. I think the big pull about commercial space is that it’s an industry that is its own marketplace, so it’s going to need specialized lawyers and people in charge of branding, marketing, and outreach. It’s a lot more than just engineering! In the future, I hope to see the space industry grab more of these diverse types of people and pull them into the industry.
Sirisha Bandla currently works on Government Affairs and Business Development for Virgin Galactic and its sister company, Virgin Orbit – supporting both LauncherOne and SpaceShipTwo programs. Previously, Sirisha served as the Associate Director for the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry association of commercial spaceflight companies. At CSF, Sirisha worked on various policies with the aim to promote the commercial space industry and make commercial spaceflight a reality. During her undergraduate time at Purdue University, she led a team in the NASA-supported Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program in which she flew onboard the ZERO-G aircraft. In addition, she holds a Masters of Business Administration from the George Washington University.