By Amanda Miller
Poised on Flagstaff Mountain’s rock rim at Sunrise Amphitheater in Boulder—where she got engaged—Rachel Cheetham reflects on her 20s. She overlooks her alma mater below and the Louisville tech park beyond, where she launched her career.
As former chief of staff for Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) space industry operations in Louisville, a lot of her job amounted to talking to people—at events, in meetings—building confidence within the global space industry that the comparatively small company could carry off a big NASA contract.
Looking out across the plains and all along the Front Range, she thinks about how she’ll put those skills and that network to work in the interest of national security.
Now a regional director for the U.S. government’s new Department of Defense technology accelerator office—MD5—she’s uniting tech-strapped military units with problem solvers in the industry.
Her introduction to space came in an unlikely place, New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. As an intern with the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, she organized VIP speakers for an annual symposium and knew she had landed in a good spot.
“Little did I know I was getting myself into the rest of my life,” Cheetham recalled.
The undergrad majoring in international business also interned for the International Astronautical Federation, but after college—without a technical degree—she wasn’t interested in continuing with the space industry and decided to take whatever job she could get.
Yet a connection in Colorado—a symposium VIP and then-head of SNC’s space division—came through with an offer: Start out as executive assistant and help spread the word about the Dream Chaser spacecraft, a successor to the space shuttle.
“I literally talked to anyone who would listen and many people who wouldn’t,” she said.
After a series of contract wins and defeats, the team brought home a historic deal—a six-mission deal to fly an autonomous Dream Chaser, carrying only cargo, to the International Space Station and back. The first is scheduled to launch atop a rocket in 2020.
Cheetham’s parents were entrepreneurs who started a commercial bakery in Albuquerque, N.M. She married a Boulder space-industry entrepreneur. While she didn’t choose the entrepreneurial path, it seems as though it chose her.
For MD5, that means bringing together high-tech entrepreneurs in her region—Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and Utah—with military stakeholders at events. Her first was a pitch competition, a packed room where uniformed troops, Department of Defense civilians, and members of the venture community squeezed in to hear pitches from startups with products or plans ranging from big-data analysis to nuclear-powered space tugs.
“We’re building everything from the ground up, pivoting, finding things that do work and trying to scale,” she said. Just like any good entrepreneur.