Third Act Podcast

Your first act is school, your second act is work, but have you thought about what you’re going to do in your third act? Join host Liz Tinkham, a former Accenture Senior Managing Director, as she talks to guests who are happily “pretired” – enjoying their time, treasure, and talent to pursue their purpose and passion in the third act of their life.

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The Space Advocate with Shelli Brunswick


In this episode, Liz talks with Shelli Brunswick – The Space Advocate. Shelli Brunswick spent 29 years in the Air Force focusing on what she calls the “on Earth” jobs for the space program. She wasn’t quite sure what she would do when she retired, but her vast network paid off: she found the Space Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy organization offering a gateway to education, information, and collaboration for space exploration and space-inspired industries that define the global space ecosystem, where she is now COO.

On today’s show, Shelli shares her infectious enthusiasm for the booming career opportunities in space as well as why 2022 is going to be the best year yet for space exploration.

2:16 Why 2021 was a great year for space
3:06 And why 2022 will be even a better year for space
4:14 Joining the Air Force
6:57 Doing the “on Earth” jobs for the space program
10:16 Find the Space Foundation
11:32 Opportunities in the space industry
15:13 The importance of the Space Force
16:50 Everyday technology that is enabled by space exploration

You can learn more and connect with Shelli on her website or on LinkedIn. Learn more about the Space Foundation here.

If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe and share a review. Engage with more stories of those finding fulfillment in the third act of their lives on Liz Tinkham’s Third Act podcast at

Liz Tinkham (00:14):

Hi, this is Liz Tinkham and welcome to Third Act, a podcast about people embracing the third act of their lives with a new sense of purpose and direction. The Third Act begins when your script ends, but your show is not finished.

Liz Tinkham (00:34):

Hi everyone and welcome to Third Act. Today I talk with Shelly Brunswick, the space advocate. I must admit that while I’m always excited about my guests, with my aerospace engineering degree and my love of all things space, I couldn’t wait to talk to Shelly—and she didn’t disappoint. Shelly Brunswick spent 29 years in the Air Force, focusing on what she calls the on earth jobs for the Space Program. She wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do when she retired. But her vast network paid off. She founded the Space Foundation, a nonprofit advocate organization offering a gateway to education, information, and collaboration for space exploration and space inspired industries that defined the global space ecosystem. Today, she is the COO there. On today’s show you will hear Shelly’s infectious enthusiasm for the booming career opportunities in space, as well as why 2022 is going to be the best year ever for space exploration. Hi Shelly, welcome to Third Act and happy new year. We’re recording this right after the turn of the year of 2022, where do I find you today?

Shelly Brunswick (01:48):

Well, it’s a pleasure joining you and thank you so much for starting 2022 so wonderful with this interview.

Liz Tinkham (01:54):

Oh, thank you.

Shelly Brunswick (01:54):

I’m in Colorado Springs.

Liz Tinkham (01:56):

Good for you. Good snow out there? Are you a skier?

Shelly Brunswick (01:59):

I am not a skier and we are not having good snow. So we hope that that will change in the new year.

Liz Tinkham (02:05):

Good for you. Well, let’s talk a little bit about your background in a minute. But I was watching a video that you did sort of towards the end of this past year and you said 2021 was a great year for space. Why was that?

Shelly Brunswick (02:16):

Well, I’m sure many of your audience members have watched the great things that took place in 2021 with the private citizens flying into space on Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, SpaceX, you saw the US land a Mars rover called Perseverance as well as flew a drone helicopter for the first time on another planet, that rover was called Ingenuity. Perseverance was a rover, Ingenuity was the helicopter. You saw the Chinese put up the space station and fully staff it in 2021. The global space ecosystem in 2021 is exponentially bigger than 2020. In 2020, the Space Foundation said the space economy was 447 billion. We’re adding more jobs in the space ecosystem. We had more launches than ever.

Liz Tinkham (03:04):

And what about 2022, how does it look?

Shelly Brunswick (03:06):

Oh my gosh, 2022. Well, let’s look at 2022. That is going to be the most aggressive year ever for space exploration. Think about the James Webb Space Telescope that just launched that’s going to be operational. NASA is launching its Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule for part of their project Artemis to return to the moon. You’ve got Boeing and the Star Liner going into the international space station. You have SpaceX and their newest spacecraft. You have six different companies that are launching orbital rocket systems. NASA has three companies that are going to look to land commercial cargo systems on the moon. And the European Space Agency and Russia will launch the ExoMars Mission to Mars that will be their first rover. So if you thought 2021 was hot, 2022 is going to be even better.

Liz Tinkham (03:57):

I love this. What a great way to start this podcast. Okay, well, let’s do a quick tour. I mean, this is fantastic. But I want to go back and talk about sort of your first act and how you got here. So you went to the Air Force Academy when I suspect there weren’t that many women there. So why there? How did you end up at the Air Force Academy?

Shelly Brunswick (04:14):

So I think that’s an awesome question. So I’m going to start with, I actually joined the Air Force right out of high school and I was enlisted. So I did not go to the academy as a cadet. What happened was I enlisted in the US Air Force, I was a personnel specialist and I wanted to travel overseas so I got to get stationed in Turkey and Germany. And then as an enlisted service member, I was stationed at the Air Force Academy and that’s where I completed my bachelor’s degree and applied to become an officer. So I was stationed at the Air Force Academy when women were still new to being cadets, not brand new, but still new. And obviously the military in the ’80s was still primarily male, it is still primarily male, but we are seeing a higher increase in women in minorities and diversity.

Liz Tinkham (04:58):

How did you end up In the Space Program itself as opposed to regular Air Force?

Shelly Brunswick (05:01):

So I was an enlisted personnel specialist. And when I applied to become an officer, and I’ll highlight the first time I applied to become an officer, I was not selected. I do not have a STEM degree, which you would say most space people should have, I have a business degree. So the first time I applied to be an officer, I was not selected. But as I tell everybody I mentor, go for it anyways. Reapply, keep going, don’t give up on your dream. And I did the same thing I reapplied. And on the second time I was selected to become a space acquisition officer, which is a Space Program manager. And that started my career in the space business.

Liz Tinkham (05:38):

Four years turned into 29 years. Now, maybe you weren’t planning it that way, but give us a few highlights of working for the Space Program.

Shelly Brunswick (05:47):

Absolutely. So again, I was probably like many young citizens out there who are saying, I’m not sure I’m ready to go to college, what am I going to do? I enlisted in the Air Force so I could learn a skill. I could take advantage of tuition assistance and go to school at night and get that GI bill so I could get out of the Air Force and go to school full time. Well, every time the opportunity came to separate from the Air Force, I was just like, I really love the camaraderie, the teamwork, the opportunities and I stayed and four years turned into 29 years. So it was amazing. And I just say for everyone out there, life doesn’t necessarily have one path and sometimes you got to try different things and you’ll experience where your path is. I’m so grateful that the Air Force led me to where I am today, which is in the space industry. And, it’s been a wonderful rocket ride.

Liz Tinkham (06:41):

I love that. So the one thing is I was telling my family about you last night, because we were eating dinner. And I was like, “Okay, tomorrow I’m talking to Shelly” and they know I have an aerospace degree and I’m like, “I’m so jealous of her career.” You know, you weren’t an astronaut, right? So what type of work did you end up doing for the Space Program?

Shelly Brunswick (06:57):

So that’s an awesome question. And I want to highlight to your audience, the majority of people in the space industry work on planet earth. We have great paying jobs on planet earth. We need people with high school graduates to PhDs on planet earth. There’s a very small amount of individuals that become astronauts. And now you can be a private citizen and become an astronaut for a small check. So I did many things for the Air Force. I was a project manager, I worked on launch vehicles and ground stations and satellites, I learned about weight. And you’re thinking, weight? But weight of an aircraft, weight of a launch vehicle. The more the weight, the more expensive it is. That’s why SpaceX’s reusability is so critical because being able to reuse something reduces the cost of launch. I learned about weight. Data rights, who owns the data? And that’s become so relevant today with who owns our data? So this was about who owns the data, whether the government or the company that develops something. But nowadays you can equate that to who owns my data? Do I own my data? Does somebody else own my data? And then I learned a lot about contracting. So it was an exciting 12 years working as a Space Program manager. I loved it, I learned a lot. I am a lifelong learner. So I share that with your audience. The world is changing and evolving, be a lifelong learner.

Liz Tinkham (08:23):

Your last job is when you were on Capitol Hill, which you told me you loved. Why did you retire from that job and what did you think you’d do next?

Shelly Brunswick (08:30):

I loved working on Capitol Hill. I’m a people person, I’m an extrovert off the charts. So working on Capitol Hill and being able to interact with people on a daily basis and share the Air Force message was wonderful. And the time came where the Air Force said, five years working on Capitol Hill, we need you to come back and be a space professional again. And I decided, it’s time to start the next chapter of my journey. And similar to many of your listeners and your title, Third Act, we all know when that chapter comes to an end and it’s time to start the next one. And for me, I had loved being in the Air Force, but I knew that I was ready for, what is the next thing?

Liz Tinkham (09:13):

How did you find the Space Foundation and what is it?

Shelly Brunswick (09:15):

Well, what I share with everybody who transitions from one career to another career, I started using my network. I started reaching out to people, letting them know, “Hey, I’m transitioning, would you take a look at my resume? Keep me in mind.” And somebody sent me the job for the Space Foundation and it was not something I was thinking about. I was looking at companies  that were hiring space project managers, right? Doing what I just told the Air Force I did not want to do, I was looking at doing that for a company. So when the job came across my desk, it was like, “wow, Chief Operating Officer Space Foundation.” And at that time we worked in an office with six or seven people. So I was like, “I wonder if I should apply for this.” And I had a very wise friend, Vanessa, who said, never turn down a job you haven’t been offered. So it was like, “Good point, I’m going to apply for that job.” And about 167 candidates later and about six months of interviews, I was fortunate to be the next Chief Operating Officer at Space Foundation.

Liz Tinkham (10:13):

Well, tell us a little bit about the Space Foundation and their work.

Shelly Brunswick (10:16):

I love Space Foundation. So we are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for education. And we’re all about being that advocate for the space ecosystem. So we started in 1984 when the space ecosystem was a couple countries, primarily military organizations or civil organizations like NASA or Space Force and bringing the government side together with the industry side and then providing any revenues into education. We have now blossomed from our first symposium, that was 400 people to 2019, 15,000 people coming from around the world. We have three main divisions. So we have our Symposium365, which is your premier opportunity to participate in the space ecosystem, we do that every year in April here in Colorado Springs. We have our Center for Innovation and Education, which is about lifelong learning for workforce development and economic opportunity. So all citizens can find their way into the space ecosystem. And then we have Global Alliance, which is our partnerships. So we are your trusted source for information, education and collaboration.

Liz Tinkham (11:22):

You’ve talked to me about when we were prepping, you’re very passionate about the inclusion of underserved groups, particularly in tech and space. So talk a little bit about some of the work that Space Foundation is doing in that area.

Shelly Brunswick (11:32):

Well at Space Foundation under our Center for Innovation and Education, we launched during COVID. But we had been researching this for several years, talking to many of our corporate members, government agencies. And the three main challenges we see in the space ecosystem is a workforce shortage, a skills deficit, and an innovation gap. And you can see that even now it’s manifested throughout the workforce here in the US with the rise of the resignations and reshuffling of where do people want to work. So we always had a workforce shortage. We need more workers in the space industry. And so where do we find them? And they’re in underrepresented groups, men and women, all ages as well as ethnicities, but also regions, inner city, rural communities, different regions of the world. We have a skills mismatch. So although we have openings in the space industry and individuals might be interested in those careers, there may need to be some reskilling and upskilling.

Shelly Brunswick (12:26):

And then we have an innovation gap. How are we unlocking the thousands of patents that are at NASA waiting to be commercialized with entrepreneurship? So a lot of what we do at Space Foundation is we have programs for entrepreneurship and innovation. We have K-12 and teacher professional development, and we have our world headquarters in Colorado Springs with our discovery center, which is open to the public but we also bring in student field trips from around the world, both in person and virtually, so they can learn what space is about. Many times people in schools, kids learn that space is history. It’s what we did, it’s Apollo, it’s shuttle, or it’s memorizing planets. Is Pluto a planet, not a planet? When really space is career opportunities in medical, in energy, in data analytics, cyber, robotics, and more. And we need to highlight to children, the future workforce, as well as the current workforce reskilling and upskilling that there are opportunities here on planet earth for you to be part of it.

Liz Tinkham (13:30):

You were saying when we were prepping that a lot of people in sort of rural and underserved communities don’t see space being for them. “It’s not for me, it doesn’t look like me.” What are you doing to sort of combat that?

Shelly Brunswick (13:42):

We have to break down their perception that space is for astronauts and rocket scientists. Because really, it’s for all of us. So in rural communities, you are probably using space technology for precision agriculture, right? We know when we use space technology for precision agriculture, we can increase crop yields by 10%. We’re using space technology for transportation. Our entire financial system is running on space technology. People who use these lovely things.

Liz Tinkham (14:11):

She’s got her phone up, okay.

Shelly Brunswick (14:13):

There are several parts of space technology in your iPhone or your cell phone. So most people don’t even realize you’re using space technology every day, but that means there are career paths. I mean, at Space Foundation alone, we have educators, I have financial managers, I have government affairs, I have business professionals, I have marketing, I have communications, I have IT support. So when you think about space, we need all of those. Facilities, manufacturing, there’s opportunities for everyone to look at either utilizing space technology to create a business, like Airbnb and Uber are utilizing space technology to create a business, or you could find a career working at a startup organization like Space Foundation that hires all careers.

Liz Tinkham (15:08):

So let’s pivot a little bit to talk about. The Current US approach to space. Is the Space Force up and going?

Shelly Brunswick (15:13):

Absolutely, Space Force just celebrated their second birthday. So happy birthday Space Force to all the guardians out there. I think it’s an exciting time. The Space Force and the US are not alone. You’re seeing several other countries stand up space forces. Space is so critical to the US, to our infrastructure, to our financial system, to commercialization. So when you think about space, really think about it as an infrastructure like sea navigation or traveling on interstate freeways. There’s so much information from looking down the data we’re getting. Again, open your phone, how many apps are running on space technology? Well, first of all, they’re all running, but think about your weather prediction, your finances all coming. We want that protected by an organization. And then we also want, when we had the Navy, they were there to keep the shipping lanes open. Well, we have a lot of commercial technology in orbit now that we need protection from. So those guardians are serving a purpose and we’re seeing that that is a trend throughout the world. And again, it’s not necessarily adversarial, it’s collaborative. There’s a lot of space debris out there. We need to track that if that space debris hits the international space station or another satellite, we’re going to create a huge debris spread. So we need somebody really managing those activities.

Liz Tinkham (16:36):

So you touched at the beginning on some of the exciting things that are going to happen in 2022. In terms of space, as you look forward over the next five to 10 years, what excites you about space exploration globally? What else do you see coming?

Shelly Brunswick (16:50):

Well, you see so much excitement. And when we talk about space, again let’s highlight those emerging technologies we’re seeing. And all of those technologies are really part of the space ecosystem. So I talked about debris mitigation and on orbit servicing of satellites, but I’ve just talked to some wonderful leaders who said manufacturing in space is not that far away. So imagine if we can take some of the manufacturing off planet earth and put it into space. And again, what does that entail? I doubt everybody’s going to launch on a rocket ship to work in outer space. Is that virtually then they’re going to work in outer space? Is it robotics? How are we going to do that? How does that protect planet earth as well? We’re looking at incorporating high technology into our ecosystem. EV. EV is super important right now, but the other side of it is driverless vehicles, driverless trucks.

Shelly Brunswick (17:42):

So what does that do with our workforce? So we at Space Foundation are looking at, as those new technologies come online, how does that change the jobs? Will some jobs change like your mechanic. You take your car to the mechanic. The mechanic did not go away, but the job changed. Because now you go to the mechanic, they take your car, they plug your car into a computer and your car tells the computer. Here’s what’s wrong with me. 30 years ago, you took your car to the mechanic and maybe three days later they told you what they thought might be wrong with it. So technology is going to change the way we do things. Artificial intelligence, 5G revolutionized the way we do work. It’s all going to be part of space technology. Space and cyber again are running that infrastructure for many of these activities to happen. So it’s exciting. Medical breakthroughs as we look to live on other planets, the human body’s not designed for that. So we see medical challenges, rapid aging, degeneration for women, osteoporosis, eye problems for men. We’re going to look at those challenges to live off-world and we’re going to be able to solve them on-world. Think about the technology we have now, cataract surgery, mammogram detection, all of those came from space technology.

Liz Tinkham (18:57):

Oh my gosh. I had no idea. You know of GPS, some of the other more common things, but you don’t don’t think about that. So one question, do you think we’ll see a human set foot on Mars in our lifetime?

Shelly Brunswick (19:09):

I sure hope so. I certainly think so. I know Elon Musk has a goal to…

Liz Tinkham (19:14):

To die on Mars, right?

Shelly Brunswick (19:15):

Well, his goal was, he wants to die on Mars but not on impact.

Liz Tinkham (19:19):

Well that’s good, yeah.

Shelly Brunswick (19:21):

Let’s differentiate that. So I really do think, Elon and I are not that age differential. So I do believe that’s possible. I do believe the commercial side of it is pushing things exponentially faster than if we just were government led. So the opportunity to make that happen is definitely there, it’s exciting. The other things we’re looking at, like I said, to grow food on Mars, we have to grow it in a different manner, but we know here on planet earth, we have to grow food differently than we do water management. Again, the healthcare aspects, how are we gonna pay people on Mars? You know, we’re seeing some of that cryptocurrency now, but again, that is all running on cyber and space technology, all that cryptocurrency, blockchain. So as you are thinking about all the technology you hear on CNVC or elsewhere, space and cyber are part of that infrastructure to make that happen. And the technology from pursuing, returning to the moon and going on to Mars and beyond, is going to benefit us here on planet earth.

Liz Tinkham (20:24):

What’s next for you? I mean, this is just, I mean, what an exciting place to work and an exciting field to be in. So as you look forward at past your third act, what do you see yourself doing?

Shelly Brunswick (20:32):

So the Space Foundation is so challenging. I love what I do. Every year, it’s something new and exciting. And so I’m a lifelong learner, so at Space Foundation, I’m so fortunate that my job continues to evolve and grow and develop. So I’m really excited about what I do at Space Foundation. And what we’ve learned over the two years of COVID is that the people who most need our programs, that entrepreneurship, leadership, space-inspired curriculum, teacher training, those are citizens and countries around the world that can least afford them. And we are a self-sufficient organization. We have to earn the money that we spend. So my new challenge and our challenge at Space Foundation for 2022 is to launch our endowment because that way we know that we’ll be able to deliver our programs to those that most need them to make sure that as technology evolves, we see the divide, the digital divide that’s happening, that we and our programs can close that to make sure all citizens on planet earth are going to benefit from the future of space.

Liz Tinkham (21:36):

So I almost named this podcast, I’m Not Done Yet. What aren’t you done with yet?

Shelly Brunswick (21:39):

I’m not done yet because I love advocating for space, I love reaching out to underrepresented communities around the world. My biggest goal though will be to inspire the next generation of leaders who can take my place. So then, similar to when I retired from the Air Force, when that next generation is ready to handle the baton, I’ll be ready to step off to my next chapter.

Liz Tinkham (22:02):

Good for you. Well, you’ll have to come back and tell us about that. So Shelly, thanks so much for kicking off the year with us. So where can we… You talked a lot about the Space Foundation, we’ll put that in the show notes, where else can we find you online?

Shelly Brunswick (22:13):

Absolutely. I have a website, Shelly Brunswick, but you can also just follow me on LinkedIn, Shelly Brunswick at LinkedIn. I post a lot of great programs about Space Foundation, but I also post programs about job opportunities that are both in the US and outside, I post information about other countries. So I’m always sharing great information about the space ecosystem. So you can follow me. I’m on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Liz Tinkham (22:37):

Great, we’ll look for that. Thank you so much,

Shelly Brunswick (22:39):

Thank you and happy new year.

Liz Tinkham (22:44):

Thanks for joining me today to listen to the Third Act Podcast. You can find show notes, guest bios, and more at If you enjoyed our show today, please subscribe and write a review on your favorite podcast platform. I’m your host, Liz Tinkham. I’ll be back next week with another guest who’s found new meaning and fulfillment in the third act of their life.

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