Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week we had the opportunity to sit down with 2015 Tillman Scholar and self-described “space geek” George Sondecker. The son of Vietnam veteran, George grew up in the small town of Asheboro, North Carolina and is currently serving as an Air Force reservist at the Pentagon, working with the Air Force Science Advisory Board.
What motivated you to join the military, how long did you serve?
“First and foremost I joined out of a sense of patriotism. I wanted to serve our country, and in retrospect it was the best decision I ever made. The military presented opportunity after opportunity once I got in. I served for a total of five years after graduating from the Air Force Academy, and I am now currently in the reserves. I just finished my first year as a Reservist working in Washington, D.C. My opportunities to deploy were limited since there wasn’t a whole lot of need for Astronautical Engineers downrange. Mostly, my role has been developing space systems here in the States that support our troops around the world.”
Throughout your time in the service, what have you learned about yourself that you maybe didn’t know prior to joining?
“I’ve learned a lot about how to work with people, lead people and follow too. In terms of myself, the military has been a humbling experience. I grew up in a small town and to see people with incredible athletic talent AND technical talent working in the space field… there is just a lot to learn, so I was humbled pretty quickly by the multitude of skills and talents I was surrounded by.”
What sparked your interest in space and science?
“I feel like every kid has that interest at some point in their lives! I just never grew out of it. Prior to the military, I had not faced a lot of adversity. I was a mathlete, not an athlete, but the military took me out of my comfort zone and challenged me to develop as a complete person. From there, the Air Force presented the opportunity for me to pursue my interests in aerospace and engineering, and I took the chance hook, line and sinker.”
What’s your favorite space movie?
“That’s a tough question! I’m not a huge Trekky or a diehard Star Wars fan. They’re all great films, but I really like “2001” – based on the Arthur C. Clarke book. It’s fascinating to watch the movie now and see how the writer imagined space travel might be today. We have a ways to go…”
Describe what your current role as an Air Force Reservist at the Pentagon entails?
“I support an organization called the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board as an executive staff officer. The Baord is composed of members from academia, industry, and government and is charged with leading technical studies and reviewing the Air Force Research Laboratories.”
Right now you’re interning at SpaceX. Tell us what a typical day looks like for you?
“I work in Mission Management, helping SpaceX’s customers launch their spacecraft to orbit on SaceX’s Falcon rocket. I enjoy the job for a number of reasons. First, it requires I use both my technical skills and my business education.
Second, SpaceX moves very fast, and like the military, has a strong sense of mission. The company’s goal is to make us a multi-planetary society. They are not kidding when they say they want to send people to Mars!”
For those of us who have never seen a launch in person, what’s it like?
“The first launch I saw was a night launch in Virginia in 2013 when two satellites I worked on in the Air Force were launched. My initial thought was, ‘how have I been an aerospace enthusiast my entire life and yet I’ve never seen a launch before?’ – it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. First you see this bright light when the engines ignite and then you hear this roar that just keeps coming. Then you feel it because the ground is shaking even though you’re standing miles away from the launch pad. Watching a launch on TV simply isn’t the same.”
How did you learn about the Tillman Scholarship?
“I found out about it through a strong military alumni group at Harvard Business School where I met fellow Tillman Scholar Kimberly Jung (and co-founder of Rumi Spice). She mentioned the scholarship to me. I wanted to learn more about the Pat Tillman Foundation and I’m so glad Kim told me about it – it’s a privilege being part of this distinguised group of scholars and the organization.”
When you received the call that you had been selected as a Tillman Scholar, what was your initial reaction?
“I was blown away because I thought I had the worst interview of my life! In business school, they teach us how to prepare for a pretty broad range of interview questions, but frankly the zombie apocalypse question really threw me. So when I received the call, I was shocked and excited. I’m incredibly honored to be a 2015 Tillman Scholar.”
What are your plans now as you prepare to earn your MBA at Harvard?
“While I am a business student, I consider myself first and foremost to be an engineer and hope to always work in a job with a technical dimension, leading technical people. After all, I’ve worked way too hard to become an engineer and not put my degrees to good use! Aerospace is my present interest, but there are many exciting fields to work in.”
What would your ultimate dream job be?
“Right now I feel like I’m doing it, working in Mission Management at SpaceX – launching satellites into space. Going forward, who knows what opportunities will arise. My dream job is one that uses my skills and abilities to their fullest potential, enables me to pay forward the opportunities that have been generously given to me, and allows me to make a lasting contribution.”