Alumni Spotlight: What It’s Like to Work at SpaceX
For nearly a decade, Daryush Nourbaha worked at Con Edison of New York, the company that supplies New York City and Westchester County with energy. It was there that he developed a profound awareness of the intricate relationship between people and the planet.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with numbers, and there are so many creative things you can do when trying to visualize data,” Nourbaha said. “But as much as I like numbers, they’re abstract. I’ve always been more passionate about people’s connection with the environment and how we treat it.”
This interest led him to pursue a Master of Science in Sustainability Science (SUSCI) at the School of Professional Studies, in partnership with the Columbia Climate School. Nourbaha completed the degree in 2021 and is now an engineer at SpaceX, the American aerospace company founded by Elon Musk.
What were your responsibilities at Con Ed?
I joined the company after completing a Master of Public Health in Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences from SUNY Downstate Medical Center. I started off as a program manager in the occupational health department, where I oversaw some of the projects that laid the groundwork for Con Ed’s asbestos surveillance program. I later handled various programmatic activities, such as explaining the benefits of installing front- and cabin-facing cameras in all Con Ed vehicles to help us become better drivers. By the time I left for the SUSCI program, I was working in data analytics, where I created dashboards that would display metrics about hires and racial and gender diversity. These helped Con Ed leadership facilitate the hiring process.
How did you find out about the SUSCI program, and what prompted you to apply?
I was looking to transition out of data analytics and into something that would have more societal impact. Sustainability as a concept was something I was interested in, so I started looking into degrees of that nature. When I came across the SUSCI program and looked at its objectives and course offerings, I knew it was the right program to push my career in the direction I wanted.
The structure of the program’s curriculum is pretty fluid. Did it give you freedom to pursue your specific interests?
I’m fascinated by air quality. When I was little, I lived in Tehran, a city that’s notoriously sprawling and overpopulated. All the diesel trucks discharge black exhaust. I have family members who suffer from all kinds of respiratory issues. That’s why in SUSCI I focused on air quality every opportunity I had. My Integrative Capstone Workshop project was a comprehensive indoor and outdoor air quality analysis for NYC Outward Bound Schools. During a SUSCI orientation session, I ended up sitting next to Alex de Sherbinin, and he told me about his Environmental Sustainability Indicators class. The way he described the class and its applicability was so interesting that I decided to enroll, and was able to incorporate air quality components in my final project for the class.
More generally, SUSCI helped us go deep into the science and understand its influence on regulations. I’ve witnessed firsthand these regulatory impacts on the private sector, especially in the aerospace industry.
Tell us about your role at SpaceX.
At SpaceX, I’m responsible for the environmental, health and safety performance of our production avionics and supply chain groups. These are the sections responsible for making things like the computers, microphones and harnessing that goes in the Falcon 9 rocket and our Dragon capsule. I design goals for a range of metrics and work with the teams to hit those metrics and boost performance. We have goals for everyone, and we want to increase the number of leading indicators in our safety metrics so that we can get ahead of actual incidents and mitigate their impacts as they arise. I’m also currently the point of contact for our stormwater pollution prevention program at our 70-acre campus in Hawthorne, Calif.
What’s the best story you can share about your job?
The coolest thing happened on my third day of work at SpaceX. I showed up at 5 a.m. to get a good spot by mission control for the orbital launch of Starship, the largest and most powerful rocket ever flown. I couldn’t believe how many people were already there. The atmosphere during the countdown was electric. Everyone was shouting at the top of their lungs, and I joined them. As wild as it felt, it also made perfect logical sense, because we were witnessing something the size of a skyscraper launch into the sky. It was crazy!
SpaceX is set up in such a way that as soon as you walk in the door, there is work that needs to be done—work that directly ties into the company’s mission. You could have joined the team hours before and employees will seek you out to ask for your opinion on matters with serious consequences. I haven’t experienced a company culture quite like SpaceX that makes you feel like you’re a part of the team from day one.
It’s definitely a fast-paced environment, where the free barista lattes seem more like a necessity than a perk.
How did the SUSCI program help to prepare you for such an environment?
The program definitely helped me prepare for the dynamic nature of the SpaceX working environment. I took classes covering a wide breadth of topics, which has been very useful in fielding work-related questions and issues. As far as specific coursework goes, I took Groundwater Management, part of the Sustainability Management curriculum, which has helped me understand the hydrological concepts associated with stormwater management.
Do you have any advice you’d like to share with current or prospective students?
I found some classes much more challenging than others, which I didn’t expect. But I realized that this is normal because sustainability science touches on a lot of different disciplines. As a result, some of the material you’ll have mastered prior to the program, while other material will feel foreign and challenging. So come in with an open mind and enjoy the ride!
Editor’s note: Nourbaha contributed to State of the Planet as a student: one story about the global response to coronavirus and how it could help shape our response to global warming, and another on the link between electric vehicles and racial equity.