Michael VanWoerkom ’95 remembers becoming fascinated with outer space the first time he saw Star Wars as a little kid. “I was up near the front row in the movie theater, and watching that huge star destroyer come in overhead left me in awe.” From that point on, he knew he wanted to be part of reaching that distant frontier. 

As a young adult, VanWoerkom continued to pursue his passion with a major in mechanical engineering. He met his wife, Wendi Kuiper ’96, a fellow engineering major, at the end of his junior year and credits her support as a key to his success. 

Among his many career highs, VanWoerkom says learning to fail forward at a young age taught him to take risks and keep pushing toward his goals. A math error in the design of his Calvin senior engineering project, for example, bore catastrophic results. “We built a solar-powered airplane and it failed miserably. I made a math error and effectively made a solar-powered glider. When we threw it off the top of the Science Building, it immediately crashed.” Disappointing as it was, VanWoerkom says he gained a lot from the experience. 

After earning a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan, VanWoerkom secured his first job at Lockheed Martin in Denver, Colorado. During his tenure, he served as the mechanical engineering lead for the Orion crew module, which was part of George W. Bush’s Constellation Program, a plan to return to the moon by 2020. When the project was canceled in 2011, VanWoerkom was part of the team that helped resurrect it that same year. “But after that happened, we had an organizational change, and I didn’t really like how it all shook out for me. That was the point when I decided to give starting my own company a try and see what would happen,” explains VanWoerkom, who had dreamed of launching a startup as a Calvin student. 

That same year VanWoerkom founded ExoTerra, with the hope of developing affordable technologies to reduce the cost of space exploration. “My dream has always been to send people back to the moon,” VanWoerkom says, “and I’ve always believed that if we’re going to put people on the moon permanently, we need to come up with a profitable means of doing so.” 

VanWoerkom says he began by looking for natural resources outside of Earth that could be used to expand further into the solar system. “We were looking at how to mine oxygen on the moon,” says VanWoerkom, who quickly realized that even if he succeeded in doing so, there was no ready customer for this advanced technology. “NASA wasn’t there yet, and they might not be for another 10 years.” 

That development led VanWoerkom and his team of engineers to explore how they could reduce the cost of gravity. “One of the things we were looking at is how do we make spacecraft smaller and propulsion systems more efficient.” 

Designing efficient propulsion systems has become ExoTerra’s unique market niche. They currently specialize in providing efficient propulsion for tiny satellites. Last June, VanWoerkom celebrated a career highlight when ExoTerra launched its first thruster, a rocket engine involved in both the propulsion and control of a spacecraft. “I’d been working on the company for a decade and we’d had a lot of problems with customers canceling flight programs for reasons that had nothing to do with us. So to finally get a thruster into space and show that it works was a huge deal.” 

In the larger picture, VanWoerkom operates in the continual pursuit of better. “The big thing that’s always driven me is the goal of getting into space and trying to push commercial space further. The long-term goal is still to put people back on the moon and on Mars in whatever way I can help.” With his family behind him, his strong work ethic, and his commitment to chasing innovation, it seems there’s a good chance VanWoerkom will do just that.