XCOR’s most important investor
by Sam Dinkin
|I didn’t expect the company-building effort would take five-plus years. But what was the alternative? Give up on a dream unfulfilled, without first trying?|
While the likelihood of Rotary’s success was hit-or-miss, it offered an on-the-job aerospace education. [That was certainly nicer option than Jeff going] back to college, paying tuition instead of drawing a salary. The choice to join Rotary turned out to be a winner, even though the company folded two years after Jeff joined. He and his pink-slipped development team dusted themselves off and set up shop as XCOR Aerospace.
TSR: When he asked you if he could start XCOR, how did you react?
Greason: I was all for it. He already had a great engineering team that wanted to stick together. Mojave is a cheap place to live. And we had a comfortable nest egg thanks to Jeff’s time at Intel and Rotary. We live in Tehachapi, up the mountain, which also has a low cost of living compared to much of California. Nonetheless, I didn’t expect the company-building effort would take five-plus years. But what was the alternative? Give up on a dream unfulfilled, without first trying? Living off Intel stock options during the stock market boom was worth the risk.
TSR: Are you a tough venture capital board?
Greason: Very. We put up seed capital to set Jeff up in a tiny office in Tehachapi for several months. Beyond that, we agreed that if he couldn’t convince other people of greater financial means to invest in the company, perhaps XCOR hadn’t yet found the winning concept. Jeff took zero to pitifully low salaries for a few years to help the company.
TSR: Jeff’s dream is making spaceflight commonplace. His efforts on Pentium chip helped make powerful PCs commonplace. Has his dream become yours too?
Greason: Jeff and I each have our own motivations and goals. I don’t need to take on his goals to support his efforts—I just need to support him. And I do.
TSR: What sacrifices have you had living near Mojave in Tehachapi?
Greason: I was a big city girl, and this area didn’t qualify, but it turned out to be better than the sand-dusted shack in the desert I was expecting after reading old National Geographic magazines.
It took a while to get used to comparatively quiet streets and fewer stores. There was just one intersection signal light and one flashing red light in all of Tehachapi. Rush hour was non-existent. Thank goodness for the Internet and mail-order catalogs. They saved me many times from driving the hour to a mall or big-box retailer. Since we moved here nearly eight years ago, Tehachapi has gained population, shops and services, while at the same time its small town character has grown on me.
TSR: How old are your two children? What’s it like raising them there?
Greason: We have a nine year old and six year old. Tehachapi is a safe, quiet place for them to grow up with lots of sunshine and clean air. They are freed from the pressures found in communities where the kids are pushed to become competitive at a young age. Here kids can have time to be kids—to dig in the dirt, read under a tree and otherwise fill their own time.
Like other cities of its size (30,000 people surrounded by ranches and an hour drive to the next population center), it offers youth sports, Scouts, Lego robotics and the like. We have a thriving homeschool community here which has also been helpful.
TSR: Do you think you would be homeschooling in Portland, Oregon?
Greason: It’s hard to say. Major metropolitan areas offer a huge variety of enrichment classes and clubs to homeschoolers and classroom students alike. Since Tehachapi doesn’t have as many, we take advantage of each opportunity that evolves locally, create our own experiences, and travel.
|Jeff gets the projects that require exact measurement and care. You want someone with Jeff’s qualities to build your spaceship; most of us aren’t cut out for that.|
Our kids have rocket-scientist genes; homeschooling lets us individualize their schoolwork and take advantage of experiential learning. I expect to enroll our kids in Tehachapi schools in later grades, though, and think they will do fine.
TSR: Which do you think was a bigger change in your social life, having kids or moving to the desert?
Greason: Having kids and moving to the desert certainly is a double whammy! But kids are entertaining regardless of where you live. And they keep you busy, too.
TSR: Do you worry that you might spend forty years in the desert before success like Moses in the Book of Exodus?
Greason: Say it won’t be! Hmmm, looking on the bright side: at least it is sunny! I grew up in the drizzly rain forests of the Pacific Northwest—the desert has advantages. And given that rocket engineers are destined to live in desolate places, this one isn’t bad—it’s only two hours’ drive to Los Angeles.
TSR: If your family moved to space would you be happy about it? Would you go?
Greason: I’m not in any hurry to move off this planet. As someone who gets cabin fever, I like to be where I can go outside and feel the wind on my face. Would I go? When it becomes a near-term reality, ask me again.
TSR: What about for a visit?
Greason: Sure, I’m game for an adventure. Give me a travel guide, and I’ll plan a great trip.
TSR: Can you believe in a time when Moon flights will be as common as flights to Australia?
Greason: Absolutely. It’s only a three day trip to the Moon. It takes a full day to get to Australia. These seem comparable. They flew to the Moon more than a half-dozen times forty years ago with mid-century technology; the US could do it on a grand civilian scale if visionaries step up to the plate to design, fund and build the vehicle and infrastructure now.
TSR: Do you have any reservations about Jeff flying as a passenger on the Xerus?
Greason: Jeff has demonstrated time and again that he is extremely competent, cautious and detail oriented. I handle lots of details in my writing and public relations work, but around the house I favor eyeballing measurement and free use of duct tape and cable ties. Jeff gets the projects that require exact measurement and care. You want someone with Jeff’s qualities to build your spaceship; most of us aren’t cut out for that.
Jeff will build a sturdy space vehicle with multiple redundant systems. So I know it will be safe. And he’s not going to take what he perceives to be a personal risk; he wants to live a very long time. So I’ll trust his judgment.
TSR: How would you spend $20 million if not on a ticket to the International Space Station like Dennis Tito?
Greason: Dennis made a huge contribution to civilian space flight by buying his $20 million ticket, and he got great vacation stories and videos in the bargain. In most scenarios $20 million wouldn’t make a worldwide impact, so I’d say he got quite the bang for his buck. Someday I hope to have more than $20 million so I can contemplate how to spend it. In the meantime, I’d invest my first $20 million so as to fulfill more modest dreams—travel the world, contribute to my community and hire a housekeeper. Of course, if XCOR was still seeking investors, I’d step up to the plate.
TSR: How did you and Jeff meet?
|Simultaneously follow your dreams and find balance in your life.|
Greason: During college I worked at a science museum in Portland (OMSI) enhancing the visitors’ experience by explaining exhibits and performing science shows. As you might imagine, my co-workers were people who stood out from the norm—they were quirky, scientifically curious, natural performers, and a mix of all three. One of them was a close friend of Jeff. For years during high school and college they enjoyed the company of an eclectic group of people who have proven to be among our most longstanding and closest friends. They welcomed me into their circle, where I found my soulmate, Jeff.
TSR: Is it a challenge being married to a chip scientist turned rocket man?
Greason: Jeff was able to move from chip designer to rocket engineer because he learns at light speed. Yet no matter how smart he is, Jeff remains humble, doesn’t nag, and won’t say “I told you so.” That combined with his competence is why people like to work with Jeff; and why I like to share my life with him.
TSR: Do you see your support of XCOR as strengthening or weakening your marriage?
Greason: My support for XCOR is all about our marriage partnership. I think I’ll reap the dividends by being flexible and encouraging Jeff to pursue his dream. A good partner is neither a doormat nor domineering. I’m following Jeff’s lead because he really wants to make his mark on the world and has always dreamed of space travel. At the same time he supports my choices as well.
TSR: Any words of wisdom for other rocket entrepreneurs to preserve their passion for their marriage and space?
Greason: Simultaneously follow your dreams and find balance in your life. Make sure you stay in tune with your partner—understand where you can take but also where you ought to give. Make it clear that you don’t take your spouse for granted. When Jeff worked at Intel, he still arrived home in time for dinner, even when other managers worked longer hours. He doesn’t usually make it home for dinner now, but he reserves weekends to be home with family, even when others spend the weekend at the office.