Photo: Gregg Segal; Retouching: G-TOUBrandon Pearce
What he does Designs avionics for rockets and spacecraft.
For whom SpaceX
Where he does it Hawthorne, Calif.
Fun factor Gets to send his work into orbit.
As a kid, he piled up the sci-fi novels in the closet of his California bedroom—Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, David Brin’s Uplift novels, Frank Herbert’s Dune saga. He dreamed of going to space, not as an astronaut but as a citizen of a spacefaring society. But by the time Brandon Pearce reached high school in 1986, that dream was fading. When he looked at the missions going on at NASA, he just didn’t see how they would lead to moon colonies, interplanetary travel, and deep-space adventures.
“The shuttle had started flying in the early ’80s, but it wasn’t doing very exciting things, ” says Pearce. “It wasn’t opening new frontiers, it wasn’t enabling new capabilities. The most exciting thing happening in space was Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars [Strategic Defense Initiative], which was all about weapons. And I’ve never been interested in the weaponization of space. I was always interested in exploration.”
NASA and its aerospace contractors didn’t seem to be aiming to boldly go where no one had gone before—and they were the only game in town. So Pearce kept reading sci-fi, but he gave up on the idea of a job in aerospace. Instead he concentrated on getting an education and building a satisfying career as a computer engineer.
Then, in 2002, Internet millionaire Elon Musk founded the private company Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX. Musk announced his intention to build cheap and reliable rockets to bring satellites and cargo into orbit, but he emphasized that such prosaic missions would be only the first step in his quest “to make life multiplanetary.” Pearce was sold. Today, the computer engineer is the senior director of avionics hardware development for SpaceX, and he relishes the thought that every day on the job brings his sci-fi visions closer to reality.
The path that led Pearce to his dream job wasn’t straight or obvious. He dropped out of college after one year to take a job as a technician with a consulting company in the San Francisco area. The work often brought him to semiconductor factories around Silicon Valley, and Pearce realized there were plenty of fascinating jobs for geeks like him—but he’d need to go back to school to get them. After earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in computer engineering from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Pearce went to the Silicon Valley chipmaker Xilinx. During his first year of designing circuit boards, the tech bubble burst with a loud pop, but Xilinx remained a stable place to work. “I hunkered down, ” Pearce says. He kept designing boards there until 2006.
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