As a young boy growing up in Portsmouth in the south of England, Kevin Jackson was always taking electronics apart and putting them back together to make something new, usually a radio of some kind. By the time he was 17, he had built a satellite dish in the back yard that could receive live television broadcasts from Russia.
His story reached the front page of the local newspaper, and an area manufacturer offered him a job, committing to support him through the University of Surrey while he worked part-time helping to develop satellites. His talent was too special to pass up. That company eventually became part of Airbus, the world’s second-largest defense and aerospace company behind Boeing.
Today Jackson leads Flexitech Aerospace, an Orlando-based company that designs and manufactures communications satellites for space missions. The lobby walls hold autographed pictures of astronauts he has worked with, photographs of the company’s projects in space, and a shadow box containing packages of astronaut food. He has worked with organizations that include Hughes Communications, the U.S. Army and Orbital ATK, which was later acquired by Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems. Although he’s the founder and owner of Flexitech, his business card holds the title “chief engineer.”
“Nobody wants to talk to the CEO or CTO or president of the company about the technical challenges of the projects they’re trying to build,” said the industry veteran of 42 years. “They want to talk to someone who knows how the engineering works. I don’t need the title. I’ve done it all. I’ve done the big corporate stuff. What I need is for people to say, ‘This is an engineer who I can trust and will help me.’”
Jackson’s venture into entrepreneurship started in 2009 after he had spent nine years working at Orbital ATK on the Cygnus program, which creates cargo spacecraft that carry supplies to the International Space Station.
He decided to follow his passion and go out on his own as a consultant.
“It was like jumping off into an abyss,” he said. “I had a nice corporate job and was well paid, I was in a senior position, director of system satellite engineering for all of Orbital ATK, and I described it to my wife as jumping off over the side into an abyss. You don’t know what’s on the other side.”
Within a week, he had signed a contract to be a consultant on a spacecraft communications payload development project. A month later, he was enlisted to help an organization developing a shipping observation radio payload to go to the space station.
As those projects wrapped up, he landed a contract working on the Kestrel Eye program with the U.S. Army, and that led to more work. Along the way, clients kept asking him whether he could build the concepts and designs he was helping them with. He started a lab in his basement in Virginia. When it was time to expand, he and his wife decided it was time to move somewhere warm, so they headed to Florida. Orlando seemed a logical choice because of its high-tech workforce, its concentration of science companies and its proximity to Kennedy Space Center.
When a SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral in December, Jackson and his team watched the launch on television and then ran outside the office on Grand National Drive to see the rocket in the sky.
“There’s nothing more exciting than knowing something you worked on is on that launch vehicle heading into space,” he said. “It was a beautiful day, so we could see the Falcon 9 going up all the way to the second-stage ignition.”
Jackson and his wife, who is from near Stafford in England, moved to Maryland from the U.K. so he could work for Hughes on spacecraft development. The assignment was supposed to be for three years. Within a year, his wife asked, “Do we have to go back?”
“I talked to Hughes and they applied for green cards for us,” Jackson said. “Four years and nine months later, we became U.S. citizens and never looked back. Here is home now.”
Sometimes Jackson still feels like that little kid in England wondering how things work. He marvels at how he got to where he is today. He recalls a day when he and his wife, the company’s chief operating officer, took a box to a UPS Store to be shipped. The person handling the transaction asked the required question, “What’s in the box?” Jackson answered matter-of-factly, the way any scientist would: “A radio filter to go to the International Space Station.” The man at the counter responded, ‘Yeah, sure.”
One of the biggest thrills of his life was during his time with the Cygnus program, when he got to work with the team in Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. His job was to monitor communications between the Cygnus spacecraft and the ground as it was launched and during its journey to the space station.
“I got to sit in Mission Control and fly those missions,” he said. “I sat there one night and thought, ‘I’m a guy who came from a little town in England, I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, and here I am sitting in Mission Control. This is unbelievable.’”
In 2014, he received an award from NASA for his work. He and his wife were at the reception and they spotted retired NASA Administrator Gene Kranz, who became legendary during the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions. “Gene Kranz was there at the party!” Jackson said. “My wife and I said, ‘This is pretty cool.’”
Today Flexitech occupies a 1,500-square-foot lab and recently expanded to another 1,200-square-foot space in an adjacent building, which allows it to separate materials processing, such as 3D printing, laser cutting and machining, from radio electronics engineering. His team of seven keeps busy, with every employee handling a unique aspect of the business.
“Everybody has an individual skill,” Jackson said. “The sum of the parts is greater than the individual. I always say to my team, when we sit down to look at a new project, ‘I’m not the smartest person in the room. We are all smarter together.’”
As he continues to expand the company, he’s encouraged by the buildup of skill in the area in not only aerospace but also peripheral businesses, including precision machining, printed circuit board development and electronic circuit manufacturing. The region is fortunate, he said, to have the University of Central Florida and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.
“UCF and Embry Riddle both now have space programs, so they’re teaching students what it is to build a spacecraft and understand how to put it in orbit,” Jackson said. “That helps when you’re looking for people to recruit. They have rich pickings for you. They have the right people to bring in young minds to shape into the new space business as it is today.”
Flexitech also looks to Valencia College. “Not everybody on staff needs to have a full-out bachelor’s degree or master’s degree,” Jackson said. “People with an associate’s degree and a passion are worth a lot. I like to bring in people who want to do engineering and are good with their hands. I don’t really mind what you’ve done other than that, as long as you can put things together and you’re willing to learn.”
There is one key quality he looks for, and it’s not technical. “I always interview people to find out where’s that little spark of passion, what makes them want to get up in the morning and do what they do,” Jackson said. “It’s a fairly easy sell when you’re doing space stuff. Everyone wants to do space stuff.”
As featured in the January 2020 edition.