Debra Facktor Lepore - SSP89

leporeIt is always great to hear from successful graduates of the International Space University.  We recently chatted with Debra Facktor Lepore, a participant in the 1989 Summer Studies Program (SSP) in space policy and law.

In January 2013, Debra became the vice president and general manager of Strategic Operations for Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.  She is based in Arlington, Va., but spends a lot of time commuting to Colorado, where Ball is headquartered.  In this new role, she is responsible for increasing the company’s profile in the aerospace industry and market as well as augmenting collaboration across the company.  

Since completing her studies at ISU, Debra has had a diverse career experience that has spanned a broad spectrum of international assignments and business pursuits.  She has taught as an industry professor at Stevens Institute of Technology; presided over her own company, DFL Space LLC; served as president of AirLaunch LLC, a small business that developed an operationally responsive small launch vehicle; become a leader in commercial space and an expert in commercial contracting mechanisms during her tenure at Kistler Aerospace Corporation; and served as chief of Moscow Operations for Analytic Services Inc. (ANSER) Center for International Aerospace Cooperation.  She began her career as an aerospace engineer.

Debra is a strong advocate for mentoring youth and women. She encourages them to explore education in science, technology, engineering and math and expand women’s opportunities for leadership in the aerospace field.  In fact, she is the former chair of the board of Women in Aerospace (WIA), founding president of the WIA Foundation, and she helped establish WIA Europe and WIA Canada.

What motivated you to participate in ISU?

The first ISU Summer Program had taken place the year before at MIT and I was intrigued by the idea of young space enthusiasts from around the globe coming together to research and collaborate on international space programs. In 1989, ISU was still in the experimental phase; there was no permanent campus or master’s degrees.  One of my University of Michigan classmates attended the first summer.  At his prodding, seven more classmates and I took the chance to go to Strasbourg, France where the second session was held at Universite Louis Pasteur. You have to remember, when I went to ISU we were still in the midst of the cold war – the Berlin Wall was still up.  Information didn’t flow on an international scale as it does today. Just days before my ISU summer session began, the Tiananmen Square protests in China occurred. And just after our session ended, the Berlin Wall came down.  That gave us great hope for international space cooperation.  I wanted to be a part of something bigger and on a global scale and ISU could offer that to me.

How did participating in ISU affect you and your career?

First, it offered me an international perspective that I didn’t have before.  Next, it diversified my skills beyond engineering to include space policy and law, business, space architecture and more.  ISU takes a systems approach to solving complex global problems and these skills are important both in the space community and in life. But, probably most important are the connections I made at ISU. They have endured the test of time.  I still talk to my classmates and ISU alumni and faculty regularly and, now that I am back in the Washington, DC, area, plan to attend the ISU DC social gatherings.  ISU alumni and faculty are thought leaders in the space community; they are making the policy and acquisition decisions that will drive the future of the industry.    These ISU networks have been imperative for me over the last 25 years.  For example, I have hired ISU graduates and partnered with ISU alumni and faculty at other organizations on business opportunities. ISU also helped bring me to Stevens Institute of Technology, through my connections with Dr Wiley Larson; we then worked closely with ISU on a joint master’s of space systems engineering program with Stevens. Today, I’m working at Ball with my ISU SSP 1989 classmate Tim Holden.

Can you give me one example of where being ISU graduate came in handy? 

The most recent example, and perhaps the one I’m most proud of, is forming Women in Aerospace (WIA) Europe with ISU alumna Claudia Kessler.  At the time, I was chairman of the board of WIA, which originally began in the United States in 1985. Claudia and Simonetta Di Pippo (who was then the first woman director at the European Space Agency) were seeking to connect with other women around Europe and in the space community.  Claudia and I knew each other from the ISU network as well as the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA).  We worked closely together with our teams, and WIA Europe was formed in 2009, followed by WIA Canada in 2010.  Much of WIA’s international reach can be attributed to ISU connections.

Why did you choose to study the aerospace field?

I was attracted to doing things that had never been done before. I liked math and science and the Space Shuttle had just flown when I was in high school.  Aerospace seemed to be a place where I could try new things! Once I learned about ISU, I knew I wanted to include international activities in my career.

What advice would you give current members of ISU?

“Pass it on.”  I am a firm believer in mentoring and passing the knowledge you have gained to the next generation.  ISU provides a collaborative environment for discussions about the future of space and enables you to expand your appreciation for issues confronting the space community around the world.  It is this collaborative, multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary environment that needs to be continued outside of ISU. Your time at ISU will help you reach farther and have a broader impact than you’ve imagined.