Jonathan Hofeller, BS ’02
Vice President of Commercial Sales at SpaceX
SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. Learn more about SpaceX.
Tell us what you’ve been doing since you graduated from Johns Hopkins.
From a very early age, I always hoped that one day, I could experience the magnificence of space travel. Despite these early aspirations, I kept my feet on the ground and focused on a more practical degree in mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins, and learned the basics—structural, thermal, and physical principles.
In graduate school at the University of California, I enrolled in aerospace courses and worked in the Space and Airborne Systems division at Raytheon in Los Angeles. I also became involved in the infant “New Space” movement by volunteering for the Ansari X Prize. I would drive out to the Mojave Desert in my grandfather’s old Cadillac, sleep in the back seat, and get up at sunrise to do my small part and witness history with the first flights of Space Ship One. Space Ship One proved that people could safely get into a vehicle, fly to space, and return a few hours later. Participating in this event turned my preconceptions of what was and wasn’t possible upside down. And at that point, I knew I had to be part of something bigger.
In 2006, at the recommendation of a professor, I attended a small space-focused university in Strasbourg, France, called the International Space University, where I was introduced to an incredible network of space enthusiasts. My time there led me to a little startup called Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, in 2007.
A lot has happened since I started at the company. SpaceX became the first commercial company to put a satellite into orbit on its own rocket, our Dragon capsule berthed with the International Space Station, and we began landing rockets back on Earth—just to name a few milestones.
Can you describe your current role at SpaceX?
At some point, my interactions with customers increased to the point where my boss asked, “Do you want to do business development?” Having no prior experience in sales, I eagerly took on the opportunity to learn a new skill set. In 2016, SpaceX nominated me to lead the commercial sales team.
My team ensures that commercial customers, foreign governments, and space agencies from around the globe feel confident launching their payloads with SpaceX. Our team is responsible for capturing and retaining an ever-growing share of the world’s multi-billion commercial space launch market. We’re also tasked with expanding beyond traditional spacecraft launches, to things such as delivering payloads to the surface of Mars and sending private astronauts to space.
In terms of daily responsibilities, my current role requires me to meet with customers around the world, build relationships, and learn how different parts of the world do business. I help build the architecture for future vertical business opportunities; and I uphold SpaceX’s intense “never give up, never surrender” attitude.
What is the most challenging aspect of your current position? Most exciting?
Each customer and mission is unique. Each opportunity is a fierce competition because we are up against very well-established launch institutions backed by national governments and, in some cases, entire continents.
What course or project at Johns Hopkins made the biggest impact on you?
My senior design project was a defining experience. It was the first time we put the principles of what we had learned toward an actual project . For our senior design project, my team had to build a robotic exoskeleton to assist a patient suffering from a degenerative muscle disease.
My thermal dynamics class had the largest impact on me, mostly because of the instructor. Professor Cila Herman took a genuine interest in me and took the extra time to build my self-confidence and help me work through concepts I was struggling with.
What was the most valuable skill you learned at Johns Hopkins?
While sales isn’t conventionally an engineering discipline, my entire team is made up of exclusively of engineers from various engineering fields. We take a strategic, almost engineering, approach to winning deals. We take the known variables, identify the unknown ones, and piece together a solution (or equation) that gives us the highest probability of winning. For each opportunity, we test and refine our approach.
It’s this problem-solving skill, which I refined at Johns Hopkins, that gives me the courage to confidently take on new tasks and work through the new challenges I’ve taken on throughout my career.
Any advice for students interested in your field?
Get your hands dirty. Build something. Learn and test your understanding of the fundamental physical principles that define our field. If you know these core principles, you can determine for yourself what is possible and impossible rather than let the legacy institutions and critics define it. Challenge all assumptions and understand where they came from.
Remember this: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” You’d be surprised at what this simple phrase can get you, both in business and in your personal life. Have the courage to ask – very rarely is there a downside.