How I Made It: Karina Drees sees advances in commercial space travel in Mojave

The gig: Karina Drees, 40, is chief executive and general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port, a commercial flight test and research facility. It is the birthplace of innovative aircraft like the Voyager, which flew around the world in 1986 without stopping or refueling, and SpaceShipOne, a civilian space plane that won the $10-million Ansari X Prize for suborbital spaceflight in 2004.

The center serves about 150 customers, including companies such as Scaled Composites and Stratolaunch Systems. Drees is the first woman to serve as CEO.

Moving west: The daughter of farmers, Drees was born in Iowa but moved to Nebraska when she was still an infant. After graduating from high school, Drees followed her sister to Arizona, where she worked and attended classes at a community college. She eventually transferred to Arizona State University and graduated in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in finance.

“Finance and accounting always made sense to me,” Drees said.

Early space memories: One of Drees’ most vivid memories in elementary school was watching the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on a classroom television when she was 8 years old. Drees remembers her teacher turning off the TV after the explosion, unsure of how to respond.

The wide range of emotions in that single day ingrained the disaster in her memory. It also led to her interest in space, along with an appreciation for its challenges “and that there are still people that are willing to risk their lives to be part of it.” 

Space connection: Drees’ interest in space didn’t intersect with her professional career until she became an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management in 2005. There, she heard X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis give a talk about the origins of the organization, which sponsors cash-prize competitions on topics like creating a spacecraft that can land on the moon, travel about 1,640 feet and transmit images back to Earth. That inspired her to consider the commercial space industry. Drees ended up doing an internship with the X Prize Foundation, which helped her make inroads in the space community. 

“People pursue MBAs because they want to go into investment banking or consulting ... and that just never interested me,” Drees said. “I wanted to pursue the MBA because I wanted to run companies. I just happened to have this passion for space.” 

Road to Mojave: Looking for more hands-on experience, Drees was persistent in asking then-CEO Stuart Witt for a monthlong internship at the Mojave Air and Space Port. In January 2007, she came to Mojave and helped Witt with a project looking at how the desert town could become a base for commercial space operations. The two kept in touch.   

“This place tends to draw in a certain kind of person who is so focused on making a difference in aviation and aerospace,” Drees said. “I find [it] very inspirational.” 

Desert dwelling: After graduating from MIT, Drees attended an International Space University summer session in China to learn about various aspects of space, including policy, engineering and business. She then spent a few years working at tech start-ups spun off from the University of Maryland. Then, she got a call from Witt, who needed help managing the business development side of the Air and Space Port. Drees was the first to apply. She served initially as director of business development and later as Witt’s deputy general manager.

“Because of the success of SpaceX and other companies, ... I think investors are seeing this is really a viable industry,” she said. “I think the average American looks at space as something that NASA does. But nobody really took into consideration that there are new technologies being developed all the time that can help the industry.”

Looking toward the future: When Witt decided to retire, Drees applied for the position and was selected. She officially took over as CEO in January. 

One of Drees’ plans is to help space launch companies not only test in Mojave, but operate from there. “We have the ideal climate for this kind of activity, and we’re far enough out in the middle of nowhere that we’re not so concerned about noise pollution and the things that might be concerning in a big city.”

Personal: Drees lives in Mojave with her husband, Todd Quelet, and her two children, ages 3 months and 2 years. When not working, she likes to spend time with her family, whether it’s going on trips to the Los Angeles Zoo or to the Natural History Museum to see dinosaur bones. 

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

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