Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member Audrey Kiefer is helping people reach for the stars with Axiom Space, the leading provider of human spaceflight services and developer of human-rated space infrastructure, according to their website.

The company operates end-to-end missions to the International Space Station while developing Axiom Station, an eventual successor to the ISS. Axiom Space is also known for building next-generation spacesuits.

Audre Kiefer, in a white jacket with Axiom patches on it, stands in front of a window with photos and memorabilia of her accomplishments with Axiom Space.
Audrey Kiefer (Photo provided)

Kiefer, a descendant of the Theresa Richstatter family, is the senior director of customer experience operations. She shared her insights during a Q&A with the Hownikan:

Q: Tell us about yourself and your position:

A: “My name is Audrey Kiefer. Axiom Space is not only building the world’s first commercial space station and the spacesuit that will be worn by the first woman who steps on the lunar surface, but we also send private and government astronauts to the International Space Station to conduct science and outreach.”

“I lead a group of individuals who care for our astronauts, from the moment a contract is signed until after they return to Earth. We manage their schedules, travel, on-orbit cargo, family support and overall experience preparing them for their mission to space.”

Q: Tell us about your family and upbringing:

A: “I grew up outside of Kansas City, Missouri, and perhaps like many of my Citizen Potawatomi Nation brothers and sisters, I didn’t have a privileged upbringing. In fact, quite the contrary; for the better part of two years, my mother and I survived on food stamps and the generosity of her friends offering a roof over our heads. Despite our struggles, I am thankful to have two parents who supported my ambitions from an early age.”

“As kids do, my interests often shifted between dinosaurs, Egyptology, space, airplanes, extreme weather, and so on. I learned early that every career path that caught my attention required a college degree. Coming from a family where no one had attended college, I had to pay attention in school to maintain my grades. As I grew older, I sought advice from the teachers I admired who recommended that I also get involved in extra-curricular activities. I did, but I had to fit them in around my work schedule.”

“I started working at 15 and learned when you combine work ethic and a servant’s heart, you’ll be rewarded. I earned higher tips and more corporate recognition than any of my peers.”

“I learned to balance a full school day with weighted classes, the presidency of two clubs, student council, show choir and a part-time job. By the time I graduated from high school, I had a spectacular resume, several scholarships and an admission letter to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.”

“The moment that letter arrived, I knew it could change my life. With the encouragement from my parents and teacher-mentors, I made the first major uncomfortable decision in my life. I packed up my old Ford Explorer and drove to Florida to start this chapter.”

Q: How did you get professional experience? Did you have any challenges?

A: “Graduating with a technical degree in meteorology and a minor in aviation business during the Great Recession with over $100,000 in student debt was the first adult challenge that I had to face. Bills were coming due, and I needed to find an income fast.”

“After a grueling search, I found a part-time meteorology gig at a Houston non-profit, paying close to minimum wage. I took a night job at a restaurant so that I could pay for my small apartment and student loans. The meteorology gig was hardly what I had in mind, so I resumed my job hunt in my spare time.”

“After several discouraging months of searching, I opened a beer that I recently learned about at work, considered its complexity and my admiration for it, and typed ‘beer’ into the search engine. It was then that my very surprising career in sales began.”

“Without a speck of sales experience — it terrified me, honestly — I began working for a broker selling independent spirits and craft beer to restaurants and stores. It’s true what they say, with enough practice, anyone can learn any skill. I had tremors before walking in to speak with a potential account. But, the more confident I was in the product, the more successful I was.”

“I caught the attention of one of our craft beer suppliers out of California. Like many other small breweries, they couldn’t afford to have full-time sales representatives, so they used brokers to represent their product around the country.”

“This is where I took another big risk and made a strategic change in my career. I booked a flight to San Francisco, drove the three and a half hours north to where they were located, sat across from the brewmaster and president and told them I could sell enough of their brand across Texas to make up for the salary that I wanted.”

Q: How did your risk pay off?

“The next four and a half years allowed me to hone my skills. I realized that sales is all about the relationships you make. A common misconception is that you need to be a great talker to be a great salesman, when the truth is that you need to be a great listener. I grew the brand 400% and Texas became the top market in profitability.”

“My first raise came when the president approached me and said, ‘Audrey, do you know how much you’ve made for this company in the last year?’ To my embarrassment, I did not. He gave me the number along with a very big raise. I learned a lesson. Always know and be able to communicate the value you’re bringing to a company. You shouldn’t expect others to know it for you, and you can’t champion yourself without it.”

Audrey Kiefer and a colleague are visible through the orange and black apparatus of a machine as they work on the AxEMU spacesuit team together.

Q: How did you make the shift to Axiom Space?

“It was difficult to leave the brewery to follow my aviation bug but I worked in business development for a local company for a couple of years. I then set out on my own and started two companies: a technology company for which I raised $200,000, and a private aviation marketing and consulting company to support me while building the first.”

“During the height of COVID in spring of 2020, I received a call from an industry friend that I met during a business conference a few years prior. He told me about Axiom Space and said that they were looking for someone to who could help serve as ‘concierge style’ support in Houston to their high-net worth customers on their first private commercial mission to space.”

“I hadn’t been interested in space since I was a child, but I wanted to be part of it. I love the start-up environment, the hustle, the uncertainty and the ability to make big impacts from any position.”

“I met for coffee with a woman from marketing and received a call from the highly decorated chief astronaut explaining the position to me. I applied and interviewed with the leadership team. I still remember the day the CEO walked into the room and shook my hand with congratulations.”

Q: Where is most of your focus today?

“I negotiated everything from the scope of my role to my new title of customer experience manager. I wanted to ensure that I had a voice to speak for the customers, soon-to-be-astronauts, across their entire journey. It turns out, not coming from a space background was an advantage. I had a new perspective on customer service and the future of commercial space that many of my colleagues did not.”

“Commercial space was and is still a new industry, and prior to this moment in history, there were only a handful of private citizens that had been to space, and zero fully private missions by a private company. The type of customers that we attracted had very high expectations of their experience with us. When people are paying to go to space, instead of being paid to go, it requires a complete mental shift for those providing that service.”

Q: What was your biggest challenge?

“The biggest challenge I faced was the balancing act of respecting and learning from government-career space executives and giving a voice to my values as the only expert that has worked closely with high-net worth clients. I was also the youngest and a female at the leadership table.”

“I can say that sending the first-ever fully private crew to the International Space Station was the most challenging thing that I have done, but it was also the most rewarding. I was regarded as the ‘bull in the china shop’ on more than one occasion. I’m proud that I remained headstrong in my commitment to excellence. I had to gain the trust of not only our customers, but also of the leadership team and my peers. Customer satisfaction is critical to a successful commercial company.”

Q: Tell us about your most recent work. Would Hownikan readers be familiar with it?

“Axiom Space recently unveiled the Extravehicular Mobility Unit to provide increased flexibility, greater protection to withstand the harsh environment and specialized tools to accomplish exploration needs and expand scientific opportunities,” according to the Axiom Space website.

“Before the public release of our Axiom Space spacesuit, the AxEVA suit, I called a friend working in Hollywood on the show For All Mankind. I asked if he could recommend someone to assist us with the cover layer worn over the suit to protect the proprietary components. He connected me with the costume designer for the show.”

“Together, Axiom Space and costume designer Esther Marquis collaborated on the suit’s cover layer for display purposes to conceal the suit’s proprietary design, using the Axiom Space logo and brand colors. The collaboration was well-received by the media. Some stories about the suit highlighted the courageous spirit of Axiom Space when they hired a Hollywood designer from a hit space-themed TV show.”

A close-up of the orange logo for the Axiom Space AxEVA spacesuit on the navy blue and black fabric of the suit.

“For our second private spaceflight mission, I approached Build-A-Bear and asked if they would be interested in making a stuffed-animal sized version of the suit. My goal was to send a spacesuit-wearing bear on our mission, then sell the suit in stores around the country to inspire and educate children about space. It was a success, and we’re still proud partners with them today.”

Q: What advice would you offer others?

“One important piece of advice is to remember your heritage when choosing a school. Many prestigious universities will offer full-term scholarships for Native Americans. I chose a private school and had to supplement my tuition with student loans.”

“I owe a great deal to the people that I’ve hired at Axiom Space. Service is a thankless job, but it manifests the most selfless hearts. No matter the obstacles, we do what it takes to get the job done.”

“I’d like to offer what I’ve learned to others like women, single-mothers and Native Americans. There have been over 600 people sent to orbit the Earth, and we only just witnessed the first Native American woman, Nicole Mann, launch to space in October of 2022. We can do better as a nation, an ethnicity and a species.”

“Robert Allen said, ‘Everything you want is just outside your comfort zone.’ I wanted to share the moments in my life when I decided to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I took risks, fell and stood back up, came to peace with the fact that not everyone is going to appreciate when you stand up for your values, and stopped apologizing for chasing goals that the people around me didn’t understand.”

“I encourage others to pursue education, seek advice from teachers or mentors, always ask or the answer will be ‘no,’ learn to communicate your value, learn to listen, give thanks often, and don’t underestimate the power of your unique perspective. I invite anyone seeking career advice to reach out to me.”

For more information, visit the Axiom Space website.