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From NASA to Entrepreneurship

As NASA endures budget cuts and grounded shuttles, employees head for startups
From NASA to Entrepreneurship
Photo illustration by 731; Plant: Davies + Starr/The Image Bank/Getty Images; Stapler and files: Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images; Helmet: FSTOP/Getty Images; Wood: CSA Images RF/Getty Images; Lu: NASA

During his five years as NASA’s chief technology officer for IT, Chris Kemp helped make millions of NASA’s images—such as rover tracks on Mars and lunar craters—available online. And he never hired a single employee. Because of congressional budget cuts, “I saw my vision for the future slowly slip farther from my grasp,” Kemp wrote in a blog post announcing his resignation in March 2011. “I am leaving the place I dreamed of working as a kid to find a garage in Palo Alto to do what I love.”

Soon after departing, Kemp, 34, located his metaphorical garage and founded Nebula, a cloud computing startup that makes hardware to help data center servers work in unison. His story isn’t unique. NASA launched its last Space Shuttle mission in 2011. While winding down the program, the agency has laid off 9,200 prime contractors, who in turn laid off thousands of subcontractors. Most staffers have been spared, although some have left NASA to pursue dreams no longer achievable at a diminished government agency. Many of these astronauts, scientists, and technologists are entering the startup world. “They are very bright and used to working on projects on a very large scale,” says Ted Schlein, a managing partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which has funded three companies led by NASA vets, including Kemp’s.