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SpaceFest panel
SpaceX’s Aarti Matthews, Blue Origin’s Erika Wagner and Vulcan Aerospace’s Cassie Lee field questions during an “Off-Planet Inc.” panel at the Museum of Flight’s SpaceFest. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

The billionaires who run Blue Origin and SpaceX – Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk – may be locked in an outer-space rivalry, but the engineers who get the job done say they’re rooting for each other.

Erika Wagner, Blue Origin’s business development manager, says engineers at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., cheer every time they see SpaceX launch and land a rocket. And Aarti Matthews, a mission manager at SpaceX in the Los Angeles area, says the feeling is mutual.

“We’re really excited for each other, because we’re changing the industry together,” Matthews said last weekend at the Museum of Flight’s annual SpaceFest gathering in Seattle.

One of those changes is the growing prominence of women in the commercial space industry. That was reflected in the title of this year’s SpaceFest: “Ladies Who Launch.”

To be sure, women engineers have a long way to go to reach parity with their male counterparts. The latest figures indicate that only about 15 percent of the U.S. engineering workforce is female, and a report released last month pointed to gender and racial bias in the profession.

But that situation could well change, thanks in part to the women who hold executive positions in aerospace: For example, SpaceX has Gwynne Shotwell as its president and chief operating officer. Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has its headquarters in California but does a lot of propulsion work in Redmond, Wash., is headed by President and CEO Eileen Drake. And Jane Poynter leads World View Enterprises in Arizona.

Wagner said the culture at aerospace companies is slowly but surely moving away from its roots in the “Right Stuff” era.

“At Blue Origin, we talk about a day when there’s millions of people living and working in space, and that’s not all white men,” she said.

On one level, engineering is gender-neutral: Women have to study just as hard as men, especially in math and science, and put in just as many dues during internships and further steps on the career ladder.

“My story is my story, and I don’t know what parts of that story are different because I’m a woman,” said Cassie Lee, director of aerospace applications at Vulcan, the Seattle company created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

But on another level, sisterhood can be powerful – and can bridge the rivalries between companies aiming for the final frontier.

“Particularly for women, we really as a group believe that there’s more than enough for the industry,” said Hanna Kubiak, a business development manager at Virgin Galactic in Long Beach, Calif. “Success breeds success.”

To nurture that success, there’s an informal networking group called Seattle Space Gals.

“When I first moved to town, I was looking to meet more women in the space industry, and I was finding it hard – not so much because they weren’t there, but because when you go to an aerospace event in Seattle, it’s all airplane-builders. And I was looking for space gals,” Wagner explained.

“So I started calling a couple of friends and saying, ‘Hey, let’s go out for cocktails, and let’s talk about what’s going on in the industry,'” she said. “Those friends called friends, and those friends called friends, and now we have 80 of us in the Seattle Space Gals.”

Wagner’s story switched on a light bulb for SpaceX’s Matthews.

“We don’t to my knowledge have something like that in L.A.,” she said. “Maybe I’ll be inspired to start one.”

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