Enrico Palermo became the Head of the Australian Space Agency in 2021 after 14 years at Virgin Galactic. He is Space Agent 91.
Inspired by NASA’s Galileo mission and Dr Andrew Thomas’ missions aboard the space shuttle and to Mir space station, Enrico has been driven to work in the space sector since an early age. He studied physics and mechanical engineering at the University of Western Australia, then worked at Woodside Energy. “Like most engineering graduates in Perth at the time, I ended up in the resources sector,” he says.
All the while he was applying for space industry roles in Europe, but getting nowhere. So in 2005, Enrico and his wife Nadia both quit their jobs and moved to London. “We took a big leap of faith that we had the skills and the confidence to do it,” he says. “I always say that you create your own luck. If we hadn't taken that unexpected step, I wouldn't be where I am today.”
Enrico did not immediately find a space job. Instead, he found a position with a technology start-up. In the meantime, he attended the International Space University’s Summer Session Program in France in 2006. It was there that he met Alex Tai, then COO of Virgin Galactic.
By the end of the year, Enrico was part of the Virgin Galactic team. In fact, he was one of the first ten employees.
Enrico’s first responsibility was to create a business plan for The Spaceship Company, Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing arm. After two years in London with Virgin Galactic, Enrico and Nadia made another international move. This time it was to Mojave, California, so that Enrico could establish The Spaceship Company and start building a fleet of reusable spaceships. Starting from a small rented office, Enrico was responsible for developing all aspects of the company. This included the team, facilities, IT infrastructure, and supply chain and business processes needed to build and assemble space planes that travel three times the speed of sound.
Enrico was there for the first flight of Virgin Mothership Eve, and only missed one glide flight of SpaceShipTwo in his entire time at Galactic. “I didn't have an active role in Mission Control, so I used to emcee our flights,” Enrico says. “At flight line I'd have the mic and be briefing the team on what was happening in real time. I'll never forget that I got to tell Sir Richard Branson his spaceship had finally made it to space.”
By the time Enrico left Virgin Galactic, he had risen to the position of Chief Operating Officer. What was once a team of ten was now three companies and over a thousand people. In 2019, Virgin Galactic donated the rocket motor that powered VSS Unity to space for the first time to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Enrico led that process. And then the call to lead the Australian Space Agency came.
“It's not every day you have the opportunity to lead the space program for a nation,” he says. “It's an immense honour and privilege to serve Australia in this capacity as Agency Head.”
Over the next few years, Enrico is looking forward to bringing the goals set out in the Australian Civil Space Strategy to reality. “Megan Clark, Anthony Murfett and the team really set the conditions to grow,” he says. “My focus now turns to delivery. How do we turn our programs into jobs? How do we continue to inspire the nation? How do we determine what the Australian space sector is known for?
“I think the Agency today is punching above its weight. We're one of the smaller agencies out there by headcount, but you wouldn't know it from the reach and the amount of activity we have. Our place in the industry will grow.”