Jim Cantrell

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Jim Cantrell
Jim Cantrell Photo.jpg
Alma materUtah State University

Jim Cantrell is an American entrepreneur, mechanical engineer and road racer. He is CEO and co-founder of Vector Launch, Inc.[1] After working at the French Space Agency CNES (Centre Nationale D’Etudes Spatiales) and the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, he worked as an independent consultant to aerospace companies for fifteen years and was on the founding teams of SpaceX and Moon Express.[2][3]

Cantrell received NASA Innovation Award for Mars Balloon Technology in 1989. He is the author of twenty technical papers.[2][4]

A mechanical engineer by profession, Cantrell also occasionally participates in road racing and has participated in Thunderhill Raceway Park's 25 Hours of Thunderhill and the 24 Hours of Daytona Classic. In 2005, he founded Vintage Exotics Competition Engineering, which designs and restores race cars.[5]

Early life and education[edit]

Cantrell was born and raised in Yucaipa, California, and went to high school in San Jose, California. In 1983 he enrolled at Utah State University for a BS in electrical engineering but later changed to mechanical engineering. Alongside his BS, he worked as a research engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory for one year starting in 1987.[6] At Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he worked on Mars exploration technologies including Mars Rover and Mars Balloon missions.[7] He completed his BS in 1988 and started MS in mechanical engineering at Utah State University, while working as a research engineer at the University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory again focusing on Mars exploration.[8]


Cantrell joined the French Space Agency (CNES) in 1990 after completing his MS. He went to France to work on a joint French-Soviet Mars program and led the design and development of the Mars Snake for the Mars 94/96 balloon mission.[2] He returned to the U.S. in 1992 to join Space Dynamics Laboratory, where he led the spacecraft systems engineering on three small satellites for Department of Defense. He also worked on various joint missile defense programs conducted between America and Russia. Cantrell was promoted to the position of director program development in 1997.[9]

In 2001, Cantrell started independent consulting and served as the program manager for the privately funded Solar Sail program known as Cosmos 1.[10] The same year, Elon Musk approached him seeking his help in sending a mission to Mars using Russian rockets because of their low price as compared to the US rockets. When Musk and Cantrell approached Russians, they refused to sell them rockets and Musk decided to build his own.[11] Musk founded SpaceX with the help of Cantrell and asked him to serve as the Vice President of Business Development. Cantrell started working at SpaceX; however, he felt that the company would not succeed and left in September 2002. While at the company he helped in the development of Falcon 1 launch vehicle.[12]

After leaving SpaceX, Cantrell founded Strategic Space Development, an aerospace and technology consultancy and took on the position of president and CEO.[13] One of the significant projects undertaken by Strategic Space was the Light Sail projected headed by The Planetary Society where Cantrell served as Project Manager from 2008 through 2012. In 2010, the founders of Moon Express approached Cantrell seeking his help to develop a business offering commercial lunar robotic transportation. Cantrell became a member of the founding team of Moon Express and subsequently became the CTO of the company. Moon Express was selected by Forbes as one of the 'Names You Should Know' in 2011.[14][15]

During his tenure at Strategic Space, Cantrell also became involved in the technical and financial development of several startups including Skybox Imaging in 2010, Rocket Lab in 2014, Satellogic in 2013, and Black Sky and Planet Labs in 2015.[16]

Cantrell was hired as the CEO of IDair, a biometric authentication technology company, in 2013 to turn around the company and settle existing legal disputes.[17] As the CEO of the company, Cantrell reorganized the firm and led product development efforts at the company. He stepped down from the position of CEO in 2014 after obtaining a $17M settlement in IDair’s favor.[18]

In 2015, Cantrell approached John Garvey with a business idea to develop a Micro Launch Vehicles to service the micro-satellite community. The two, along with Ken Sunshine and Eric Besnard, worked on the idea and launched Vector in 2016.[19] Cantrell stepped down as CEO of Strategic Space Development (now known as StratSpace) to serve as the CEO of Vector.[20] As of 2015, Vector has raised $1 million in angel funding and $2.5 million in contracts to build a small rocket that the company will launch into orbital space in 2018.[21][22]

Throughout his career, Cantrell served on corporate boards of several companies in the aerospace industry. In 2004, he became a board member at the Paragon Space Development Corporation and served there until 2013. He was on the Plantery Society's board of advisors from 2007 to 2012. He has also served on ATLAS Space Board of Advisors, Morf3D Board of Advisors, Iceye, and York Space Systems Board of Advisors. Cantrell also served on source selection panels for NASA reviewing proposals for deep space and space science missions for 15 years.[2]

Road racing[edit]

Cantrell began racing on go-carts in his teen years later graduating to drag racing in 1982-1985. He began pursuing a career in racing in 2005. Since then he has participated in 25 Hours of Thunderhill, 24 Hours of Daytona Classic, SCCA GT-1 Championship events (placing 13th and 7th nationally in SCCA GT-1 championships) and vintage races all over the United States. He was the SCCA regional champion in Arizona in C Sports Racing in 2013 and 2014 and on the Arizona Region Sports Car Cub of America's board since 2012.[5]

In 2005, he founded Vintage Exotics Competition Engineering, which designs and restores vintage racing cars. He was the Competition Driving Instructor at Raptor Motorsports from 2010 to 2012.[23][24]


  1. ^ "Vector Space Systems aims to launch satellites by the hundreds".
  2. ^ a b c d "New Company Wants to Change the Way We Think About Spaceflight".
  3. ^ "While SpaceX eyes its "BFR," an early employee now pursues an "SFR"".
  4. ^ "Jim Cantrell".
  5. ^ a b "James Cantrell talks to TheTOC".
  6. ^ "Jim Cantrell".
  7. ^ "It's a Corvettes summer at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion".
  8. ^ "Human Spaceflight From Mars to Stars".
  9. ^ "James Cantrell".
  10. ^ "Solar Sail Spacecraft Set for Launch".
  11. ^ "Former SpaceX Exec Explains How Elon Musk Taught Himself Rocket Science".
  12. ^ "How Did Elon Musk Learn Enough About Rockets To Run SpaceX? Jim Cantrell Answers".
  13. ^ "Old Russian ICBM Reincarnated as Space Launcher".
  14. ^ "ABOUT US".
  15. ^ "It's Official: In 2017, We Begin Mining the Moon".
  16. ^ "The next space race will be 3D printed".
  17. ^ "Fingerprint Startup Claims Smartphone Security Breakthrough".
  18. ^ "美国IDair公司研发自主指纹识别系统 获媒体好评".
  19. ^ "Former SpaceX founding members unveil Vector Space Systems".
  20. ^ "Two of SpaceX's founders are working on a new rocket to launch micro-satellites".
  22. ^ "Two of SpaceX's founders are working on a new rocket to launch micro-satellites".
  23. ^ "Elon Musk: Triumph of His Will".
  24. ^ "Vintage Exotics".