Kelly Hennig, COO of Stoke Space
Welcome to a New Episode of the Executive. we've got a real treat today. Another space expert on the podcast in Kelly Hennig, who is the COO Of Stoke Space who is doing just really incredible work in reusable rockets, and so excited to talk about, you know, what they're building, why that's so important in sustainability, and why sustainability is even so important just for the space industry. So Kelly, so excited to have you on. Thank you for joining us today. Thank you for having me.
I appreciate it. Absolutely. Well, Kelly, why don't you just, you know, start us off with a little bit about, Stoke Space, kind of what you guys are, are building and, you know, why do you care about sustainability and, and reusable rockets To start us off with, We really need to get into space and we have to kind of, our population is expanding at a rapid pace. It has been for years. We're growing exponentially. and the carrying capacity of the earth is kind of reaching its limit.
we're not, you know, we don't have, you know, any frontiers left to explore. And we just don't have the, the ability to keep putting factories and farms and other places. And so we really have to find a way in order to use our space efficiently and to essentially grow our ecosystem.
And the place to do that would be space. and in order to be able to do that, you have to make. Space easily accessed, and you have to provide routine and low cost flights there for everybody to be able to do that.
this enables us to put quite a bit of assets up there. They're low-cost satellites that help with earth observation. Things like weather pollution monitoring, help with resource allocation, or improving farming practices. or even, you know, just. It just simply for communications and other things like that, that just help us run our lives better and more efficiently.
and so to do that, we really just have to democratize space and allow us to get up there and. Following that, you wanna do that in a way that minimizes the impact of the planet. So you don't want to have very high pollutants in rockets, whether it be solid rockets or using kerosene or other things like that. And you certainly don't wanna leave anything behind once you're up there. so right now lower Earth orbit is filled with space debris from things people left behind.
and so we're developing a fully reusable rocket that includes the first as well as the second stage, and most people throw away that second stage. we wanna bring it down. And so that again, eliminates any of the I guess the debris that you see beginning to pollute space. And how did Stoke Space get started? I mean, how did you know the team get started on such a, but probably when you started was a kind of a crazy idea to be able to reuse these, right? It was a big enough deal just to get the space. And now we're, we're talking about reusing these. Yeah, sure.
so it was started by Tom and Andy. and they are both rocket scientists. I'm not, so I get to say that.
and they came from another place that is developing rockets. and they really wanted to move faster and they saw that a number of our competitors aren't addressing. the real problem that exists, which is how to drive down launch costs and how to make space access routine. and in order to do that, you need a fully reusable rocket. And the second stage has always been very problematic.
how do you bring that down? How do you survive? atmospheric reentry, which is. It has terrible, terrible environments. And you can remember when we were flying the space shuttle all of those ceramic tiles that were on it. Yeah. And how that protected it, how fragile they were. Right.
how, you know, they could get easily damaged, how they had to be inspected and taken care of. And then once it's kind of lands, you actually have to cool it. So they have to attach a fire hose essentially onto it in order to be able to bring it down to a temperature so people can even approach it. so that, You know, solution set has been tried for years, but it just wasn't providing the real sustainability options that we needed.
and say they came up with a fully reusable base heat shield which is actively cooled, and they pulled on their experience in designing engines, which uses regenerative cooling within the combustion chamber in order to maintain the walls at a certain temperature so it doesn't melt. and they pulled from that. And they developed this heat shield that uses the same principles in order to re be able to survive reentry and then react rapidly and reuse it. And in terms of the reusability of these rockets, we started to see this, I think, you know, blue Origin reused one of theirs. Where, I mean, eventually is that where everything is going? Where everyone will use reusable rockets? There'll be, this will be a thing in the past of just, well one time use. Is that where we're going? I, I honestly believe so.
Yeah. And I absolutely hope so. it's funny because you think of aerospace, it's aviation and space, right? Right. And we don't actually ask why do you have reusable aircraft, right? Yeah. that's common sense.
It seems a little bit absurd, right? so when you think about, you know, Launch vehicles, why would that be any different? Why would you necessarily need to have something that you throw away as opposed to reusing? And so we, our goal is to make, you know, space launch very similar to commercial air flight where you're continually flying and reusing the aircrafts and it becomes more of a service as opposed to, You know, purchasing a launch vehicle and talking about Stoke space. more specifically, your team is known for moving incredibly fast. I think you're one of the fastest growing rocket companies out there. If not, I think the fastest. How is that, that your team, you know, has done that? You know, is that, is that a cultural thing? You know, what, what is it your team is doing really well, you know, to have that type of title associated with you? Again, I have to credit the founders, Andy and Tom on this.
they were created a vision. a vision for the company as well as a vision for the culture, the mission, the technology itself. And that culture has attracted very high-caliber talent. Um, and so we've been able to cherry-pick because.
People are so willing to join the company, we've been really willing to able to cherry pick them and pull from the best. And once you have a team that is incredibly competent, you can trust them and you can rely on them and you can kind of work with them in order to go very, very fast. you really want people who k who you know, match your passion. Yeah.
Um, so you want the founders provide the passion. You really want people who can provide a similar match and enjoy the work. And really, you know, push themselves. And so we feel that we've been able to really pick the, the cream of the crop as far as talent. And I think that has a lot to do with it. And you have a big vision, so it's easy to, you know, pull people into that.
What is it about the culture that, you know, that is so enticing to people? What, what is the culture? I would say the culture is about, About trust, um, ownership, grit, integrity, all of the things that you commonly hear companies actually spout. Yeah. But I think here the leadership really embodies it. and when they're, you know, walking the walk and talking the talk, people pick up on it.
Yeah. and they start to emulate it and they start to. You know, hold each other accountable in those same aspects. and so you can't necessarily have a, a culture that you don't ensure is, you know, embodied from the absolute top down.
And I think we have done a very good job of flowing it down and, and keeping it throughout the company. Yeah, that's well said. And in terms of moving fast, obviously startups, you know, startups have to move fast. sometimes that's the advantage.
How do you move fast as an organization, especially in heart tech, right? Where you don't wanna make mistakes, you still need everything to be right. You know, how do you make sure you're, you have accuracy and move quickly? Well, I think that's a misnomer. I think mistakes are fine. Yeah. Um, I think you want to make mistakes, you wanna iterate, so you want to do the, the bare minimum of analysis in order to get you to a phase where you can test.
Yeah. And then you can learn. And then you can take that and incorporate it back into your design and you'll have these cycles of learning that make the product so much better. There's so much that we can't understand and. And fully encompass in our simulations or in our, in the formulas and all of the things during design practice, you really need to be able to test and build hardware.
And so the idea is not necessarily that you don't make mistakes. The idea is that you make a mistake quickly, you learn from it, you adapt, and then you keep going. Right.
It sounds, and it sounds like that's your culture. What did mistakes made and it's, what did you learn from it? Great. Let's adapt. Let's implement that. Yes. Yes.
And it goes a little bit back to the, the grit aspect of it. And, because you have to be willing to fail and you have to be willing to kind of pick yourself up. Yep. This design was wrong. I learned a lot from it.
I'm gonna keep going. Yeah. And I think everybody here embodies that overall mentality. Well, I do wanna click on one thing too, um, about your, your culture because, you know, your team has done a great job of, you know, being where you're at for not being around that long.
And you're moving quickly and your scaling. But one thing that I heard about your team that you really value is, is outside of work. It's, it's your family.
It's being home on time. And I understand, you know, you've done a really good job of that personally. You have two kids, is that right? That's correct.
Yes. How is it, you know, can you talk a little bit about that, you know, how your company values life outside of work while having the craziness of a startup, and how do you guys do that? Sure, I'll talk about that, but I'm not, I'm gonna, I'm gonna couch my own experience with right now for a second just because I don't wanna be hypocritical, so. Yep. I, I would say, again, I'll go back to Tom and Andy. If you look at their Twitter profiles, you can see both of them list one of their, who they are as being a dad. Yeah.
and I believe that they absolutely embody kind of the overall family culture. And what that essentially means is they, We've kind of shifted away from childcare and family to being a woman's issue and made it an overall family issue and shifting the conversation away from, it being maternity leave and it really just being family leave and, and, and talking about that. And when you see. Powerful, powerful men taking, you know, paternity leave or going off to pick their kids up or staying home because they're sick, or doing any of the things that you typically associate with, you know, mothers in the workplace. It has an incredibly powerful impact on your employees. and it has a huge impact on women employees.
when I was an early career engineer, My managers had very, very successful wives and so they had pickup and drop off duty for their kids and they would leave, you know, at five o'clock every day. and they would get in at eight o'clock every day and sometimes they would bring their kids in and that a profound impact on my. overall assumption about what my work-life balance would be and what I would expect from folks. And so when people see that they're, it makes it very easy for them to, to copy it.
And so the reason I couched my own personal experience is because I cheat right now. And so during the pandemic, me and my husband were both work at the same company. we were both at Northrop Grumman for a very long time. Yeah. And when the pandemic hit, we were both onsite because our jobs required us to keep working onsite. And when that happened, our kids weren't getting the support that they needed.
And so we quickly determined that one of us needed to step back and stay with them and, and, you know, and take care of them, making sure their needs were met. And so my husband offered to do it, and so, It worked out so well. It was one of the best decisions we ever made. And so now my husband is a stay-at-home dad.
That's awesome. Yeah. Which is why I say I cheat. Yeah. Or, or I feel, yeah. Good. I was gonna say, you know, he's, you know, sacrificed for the family, but it's hard to say it's a sacrifice when you get to spend so much no time with your kids too.
I, you know, it can be either. He loves it and I love that he loves it and it, you know, it makes, it has, it's such a relief to. Not have to worry about who's taking the kids to the doctor or they're sick today. How do we juggle that? And so it was, it was really a huge relief. and I think it really improved our kids' lives.
And it was just something that we personally needed. And so I don't think that this is a, something that is across the board. I think, yeah, some families are a lot more resilient and you know, they've got it down. but I also don't wanna misrepresent my own. No, I I my own ability to multitask.
I, that's important to say, right? Because I think it's, it, it's tough when people portray something else, right? Where they're, they're in at five and, you know, leave at seven and they're still great parents and you're like, and you're trying to do the math of how that works. Exactly. And then you feel terrible because you're like, oh my God, how come I can't do that? Right, right. Yeah. No. So, no, I think that's important to say.
And, and it's again, what's interesting about your culture is just the leadership, right? The leadership sets the tone. Yes. And they're the ones that's saying like, we're, we're gonna be taking care of our kids when they, when they're sick, when they need us home, and we can still get our work done. Yep.
talking about you specifically, so you were at Northrop and Raytheon, large companies, much larger than Stoke, in your, in your career, what made you leave the, the, you know, the, maybe the comfort of a big company, if that's the right word, to be like, I'm gonna go actually, you know, be the CEO of this, you know, startup at the time and still is. So I met the founders and I was really impressed by their leadership. I got to meet quite a few of the employees and I was impressed by them. I loved the overall culture and for me personally, I in a large company like that, your ability to help people out.
And effectively make change is really hampered by the overall, you know, huge machine that you, you know, have to go through and the bureaucracies you have to deal with. And I was a little bit frustrated that I couldn't make a bigger difference. And so here, I have quite a bit of freedom in order to help people out, make positive changes, implement policies that make sense, and just help out the people. Of the company to a much larger extent, and that's very satisfying to me. you wanna have a, you do it quickly too, which is fun, right? You can have a, you can have a bigger impact.
A lot quicker. A lot quicker. Yeah.
for for example, we were very successful in one of our engine tests and the leadership, me, Tom, and Andy got together and we said, you know, we should give our team another day before Thanksgiving, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving off. just to allow people to stay home with their family and celebrate with their family, cuz they've really been pushing it up to that point. And we were able to, you know, we said let's do it and we just did it. Yeah. and we were so successful, our team had. Really pushed themselves, had driven themselves.
And we wanted to make sure that not only they did, they feel a benefit of it, but their families did as well because their families are sacrificing, in letting our employees be here and kind of pursue this work. Yeah. So we wanted the entire, their entire families to kind of be able to take part in that. That's right. So I was able to do that.
Just say, okay, I'm doing it. And that felt wonderful. It's a little harder.
Write the on, oh my God. Yes. That might be a couple years in advance. yes, I would say so. I'm, I'm sure there were things though, from those experiences that you learned a lot from, are there certain things where you really try to take those experiences into Stoke because it was so valuable? You know, what, what kind of experiences in, you know, in lessons you're trying to take into Stoke? As a startup, I have a lot of, I would say technical know-how about processes and how to get things done. but I wanna be incredibly careful.
I do not want to change the culture here, and I certainly don't wanna bring any kind of bad habits with me and institute them here. and so I have to be incredibly careful about that. I would say most of the things I'm, I'm bringing is just more wisdom from having gone through and been with a large organization and see process and what works and what doesn't work. but I would say the natural evolution and growth is happening very organically.
and I'm, I'm kind of trying hard to, to keep it moving, but trying very much not to imprint. my own experiences over top of it. I think that's very important, especially for process, right? I think a lot of startups, especially space startups, will take a aerospace executive from one of these large old school aerospace corporations and put them in charge, and they come and they bring all of their processes that they've had and they institute 'em immediately. And the thing about those, those companies and They've developed those processes through mistakes they've made and they've, you know, you're working on something, you make a mistake and you say, oh my goodness, we can't have that happen again. Let's put something in place so that when we use it appropriately, we won't do that again. And that institutional knowledge and wisdom of when to apply that process appropriately and why the process exists is critical.
in order to be able to sometimes move fast and other times, you know, produce products that can be used on flight. And when you pull from somebody like you know, an an old school executive and just put them in charge of a startup and then they bring those processes with them, that institutional knowledge never transfers and that wisdom doesn't come with it. And so all you get is a bunch of processes people don't understand and don't know how to appropriately apply. Yeah. And so I have to be very careful that I don't do that, and I allow the same type of learning that occurs at those places to occur here. Just, you know, guiding it and making that process more efficient.
Right. I'm sure that that's hard, right? Because you, you know, you're, we're all creatures of habit, but you've gotta resist a little bit of the old ways. So I'm told that I use very aerospace terms and so, and so sometimes I have to try very hard not to use the, the standard aerospace term, right. To not freak people out. Um, but, but yes, I, I would say my, my nomenclature is the biggest issue and I'm working on it. Yeah, it takes time.
As you know, as a ceo, as you come in, where are your priorities? You know what, what do you look at as like, these are my main priorities in this type of position that I'm focused on? You know, at this stage of the company. Right now I see my, my main job is to make sure people, the individuals producing the product the technicians theists, the fabricators, the engineers, they have whatever they need in order to execute. and that they have it quickly, and that it, they can come to me at any point in time and just show up at my desk and say, Kelly, I have this issue. I need help.
And my main job is to move those roadblocks and set up things and, and put things in place essentially so they can do their job better. And so, my priorities are designing processes that do not slow them down, but help them out, that streamline things and just allow them to focus and do their job. And so a lot of times. You know, it's, it's a little bit of fire. Yeah. You know? Yeah. Putting out fire mode.
Sure. and responding to whatever issue comes up, right at that point. but I, I need to be where the people are and kind of focused on what they need in order to get their jobs done.
And I'm curious to hear your, your workflow, right? Because there are so many fires during the day. Your, your to-do, your to-do list goes out the window. You still have to think, you know, bigger picture.
How, how do you manage a workflow from the millions of little tasks to. I need to step aside and like, just think about how to solve this and put some real thought into it. So I would say those type of big picture thoughts, I, I am naturally drawn to. Yeah. And my mind kind of goes that direction in kind of a almost daydreamy type of mode. that's my default setting.
So if I'm driving or, or walking somewhere or. Just grabbing lunch. I slip into that very quickly. Uh, so if there's not an immediate task in front of me, Uh, you just start thinking about it. Yeah.
I just naturally go in that direction and Yes, exactly. And so I have to, I'm more of the type where I have to focus and ensure that I'm focused on the immediate task at hand. otherwise, I, I do go in, go into the what if kind of mode. I think I, I randomly send emails or Slack messages to folks saying, Hey, what if we did this right? They're like, here's, oh, that way, here's another Kelly Slack. Here we go. Yep, exactly.
The never idea's coming our way. Here's another Kelly Slack idea that you just came up with. Yep. We all have those people.
They're the best though, because sometimes they're like, no, we can't do it because of this reason. Right. Or they're like, oh, never thought of that. Yes, yes.
And I would, I would say, I would say I do not like being told no. Yeah, right. And no, we can't do it.
So typically if somebody says we can't do it, there's a lot of follow ups. Why? Why? Yeah, why? Why? You take the things your kids ask you, right? Where they're constantly like, why? And then they ask you why and not you're like, actually I don't know the reason anymore. It's no different. Yes, exactly.
It's, it breaks down at some point in time. Yeah. And, and you get to it. But hopefully, you know, when you work with people enough and they say, oh, if I tell Kelly no, she's immediately gonna ask a bunch of why. Right. I better, I better head that off. Right.
Let me cut this off now and give her the answers she's looking for. Yeah. Um, throughout your, you know your career. Has there been something where, you know, a piece of advice or, or maybe even an attribute that you really admire that you've really tried to include in your career that, you know, you'd love to share something that you've seen? sure. I, this is, I don't know if this is advice or not, but it's, it's not snazzy and it's, you know, it's not a tagline or anything else like that, but I am incredibly focused and driven and I can be very aggressive. And I can blow right through people and I don't even know that I'm doing it.
I, I just drive. And, this is, you know, it's great. It has its uses. but when I was leading my first team a long time ago, one of my mentors told me that I needed to slow down and make sure I've brought people along with me and not leave them behind.
because if I, if I didn't bring my people with me, I would fail. And so that is something that, you know, he was absolutely right about. I took his advice. it worked, but I do have to keep remembering it.
I have to keep remembering that. I, I just can't, I. You know, have a singular focus and go off on my own and just focus on that goal.
I have to make sure my entire team is coming with me, that I have their buy-in, and that they're engaged and I've kind of sold them on the mission. because if I don't have that team backing, I, you know, I, I won't have their high performance and, and I'll lose and fail. And how do you, how do you do that? How do you bring people along? There's a lot of transparency.
There's a lot of discussions. There are a lot of, of making them feel like they are helping in the decision process. and there is a lot of, of overall me showing trust in them throughout it, as well as, me showing vulnerability that I need their help. that I don't understand everything. And, there is a lot of explaining and explaining my position and why we're doing it.
And what I need from them. And so, and not, and not even just explaining, there's listening to how can I, you know, incorporate their feedback, um, and asking, what am I missing? Okay, we're gonna do this. What am I missing guys? Like, what have I completely. Like neglected here.
Right. And having them be a part of the overall process is huge. to getting their buy-in. Yeah. Even if, even if you can't incorporate exactly what they said and even if you go in a different direction, just knowing that they're part of the process itself, A lot of times, you know, people just, they come Yeah. And that they were heard.
So important. coming back to just stoke space for just one minute, just because I'm curious to hear. You know, your vision for Stokes Space, the founder's vision of where you think Stoke Space is going. before we completely wrap up, but what is, what is your prediction for where Stokes Space is heading? What, what do you, what is the ultimate vision of what you're trying to accomplish? So both the near term goal is we're gonna launch. Yeah.
and we're gonna be successful, and then we're going to have a full-flavor reusable rocket. and a lot of right now, because access to space is so limited. Yeah.
You find a number of. Of satellite providers, who actually will aggregate all their satellites into one launch. And, they'll put them all together and they'll spend quite a bit of time actually, you know, maneuvering to their final orbit. And we wanna make, you know, launch so routine and so commonplace that it's almost always available. So, you know, they can look and say, you know, I've designed it, I'm gonna be ready. And then two weeks later they say, oh, there's a launch coming up.
I'm gonna, I'm gonna grab that one. And so we wanna make it just so easy and access to space, just so routine that it co becomes very similar to, you know, air flights. And, and following those types of models.
So we wanna see a complete shift into that direction. and I think we're gonna do it. So that is the ultimate vision for where we're going. It's amazing, isn't it, to think about how just launching into space can be in the future as commonplace as just, you know, going from Florida to Texas or, you know, I know. Crazy to think that, you know, hopefully the next generation, he starts to see that happen.
I hope so. You know, we were all promised this, so I'm not gonna date myself, but I'm gonna say a while, a long time ago, flying cars, there's all these movies about, excuse me, flying cars and all those things. Yeah. Yeah. And that we would be in space and we have these space stations by the 2020s. Right. And I'm so disappointed that, you know, we as humanity have not.
You know, kind of made good on those, those promises. but I'm very hopeful in the future we will start to see that. Yeah.
And, and I'm sure it's, it's fun to work with a team that is all working, you know, towards that, that futuristic goal and know that you're, you're building the future. It is. And to see the amount of passion that the team has, and they're just so, engrossed in the entire process. I, it's amazing. Yeah. That's awesome.
And then, as, as we start to wrap up, Kelly, you know, one thing I I, I'd love to hear from, you know, different executives is, you know, is there a favorite book that really, you know, served them well in their career or in their personal lives? Do you have, do you have a favorite one you'd like to share? I do though it's a little bit unconventional. and it's probably not your best example of a leadership book. so one of my favorite books is Catch 22.
and I specifically like it because I think it adds humor, to position to. I would say absurd leadership individuals. And so I think all of us have had a leader that we were not thrilled about or we thought was crazy or silly. and so getting through that, and maintaining a sense of humor and keeping your sanity and still learning. I think is very difficult to do and so Catch 22 always gave me humor in those situations and I was always to able to find a character that matched the individual leader I was dealing with. And so, yeah.
And have a sense of humor about it that is Yes, exactly. And I could keep a sense of humor about it and, and kind of chuckle in my head and just keep going. And, you know, it is temporary and as long as I keep learning and keep.
My eye out. I can, I can move on and be, be past this. Yeah. And so I think it's, that's very important for people to, to know and understand in order to maintain the resilience you, you need in a career. I love that. No, that's great.
and then as we, as we conclude in the last question, and I know you've shared a lot of great advice, Is there one piece of advice that you would, you know, love to leave us with, you know, as a, as a chief operating officer? Maybe it's two other CEOs or just other leaders in general that you'd like to end with. So all of us have heard, uh, the phrase about knowing when to let things go and, you know, I, I think everybody hears that. but in my particular case, I would say it's not necessarily, knowing when to let things go, but knowing when. It's okay to lose. And specifically I think a lot of folks who are in leadership tracks are high performing people who do not like to lose and they don't like that to happen. And that's not how they got to where they are.
But a lot of times that comes at the cost of winning a much larger, I would say, game. Yeah. And, and you don't realize that at the time because you're so focused on, on winning Yeah. That battle, not the war.
Things in that battle and you're not thinking a far ahead too, doesn't make sense for me to just, you know, lose this one and pick it up somewhere else. And, and I would say throughout my career, that has been, I've known it, I've understood it, but in the moment doing it and allowing it to happen is a skill, not necessarily device, but picking up that skill. You know that being able to do that is incredibly worthwhile. And so, and I'm still learning how to do it still. It takes time, good at it, but the sooner you figure out how to do that, the better.
That's a really interesting piece of advice to end with cuz I mean, I'm sure it takes a little bit of humility and experience to recognize that this is not worth throwing more resources at it. And I know it'll look painful in the beginning and maybe I don't look great in this situation, but it's the right thing long term. No, you're 100% correct. I would say you're right. It is humility cuz you know, you, your pride does take a hit a lot of times when you do that. Yeah. And that's a lot of times hard to swallow.
Right. Especially in the short term. Yeah. That's good advice. Well, Kelly, so great having you on, uh, really excited what you and the team continue to build at Stokes Space and, you know, you keep the, the fame or the, the famous tagline of being I think the fastest rocket company in the US right now, and. And so, so excited to see a future where, you know, reusable rockets are, they're just rockets. That's just the norm.
So thank you for what your team is building and sharing all that on this podcast. Well, thank you very much for having me. It's been fun. Awesome. Well, thank you, Kelly.