Have you always been interested in science?
I was always into weather. I loved watching storms; I loved thunderstorms. In high school, when I worked at The Finish Line at the mall, they used to make fun of me because I used to get really hyper when there would be a thunderstorm. I have always loved weather. I always wanted to chase tornadoes and was pretty sure that's what I was going to do for a living, and I sort of evolved. The space weather thing was really me not liking the job I was in and looking around and being like, "That sounds weird; I want to try it."
Can you talk about your path to joining the Air Force?
I bombed college the first year and decided that I didn't want my parents to pay for any more, so I figured that I could use the G.I. Bill. Also, to be fair, I think that as a gymnast I always felt like I had something, some difference in what I was doing in life, and I loved that. When I went into the military, I needed to prove to myself that I could do something that not very many people do. I did it, and it did what I wanted it to — it was kind of a booster. And then I ended up being in it forever, because I love the travel of it and all the camaraderie.
As a woman, did you find it difficult in any way?
I don't think so. I did pretty well because I was physically strong. I didn't have a lot of that kind of (gender) barrier, but I also think that at some level, you have to lay down your ground rules immediately, wherever you go. I have always sort of been "one of the guys," with a boundary in between. I tend to expect that people will treat me with the respect that I treat them. It's not that I never had anyone use it against me or try to intimidate me, I just don't get baited well. Life's too short, and I know what I am capable of. Just do the work and it makes you a very difficult target.
I was enlisted for the first 10 years, and then I finished my degree in Atmospheric Science and was commissioned and became an officer. Immediately after I became an officer, they gave me command of my unit, so I walked right into it with the butter bar, the lowest officer rank. I believe if you can establish a relationship where it's understood, "I'm going to work hard for you, as long as you work hard for me," it sets the tone for everything. It's not, "You guys are working for me; go and be my minions," you know?
I may be "one of the guys," but I also I enjoy being a female. I enjoy dressing up. I know that there are some things that people are going to be better at than me. I have worked with men in the military that are not very physically strong people, and I have worked with women who are very physically strong, and vice versa. People are people. You can't anticipate, just by gender. And mental toughness is a whole other animal but equally as impossible to assume based on gender.
You know what's really funny is that, although I was in it for 20 years, I really don't match the typical personality of somebody who's in the military, at all. I am way too laid back and goofy and fun-loving.
You mentioned you worked with space weather, is that different from what you did in the Air Force?
Yes, in the Air Force I did what I call terrestrial weather, which people laugh at me for, but it's just regular Earth weather forecasting. Space weather is what my job was in the civilian world and is defined as how the activity of the sun affects the Earth. It's still called weather, but essentially the sun has cycles of activity and there are different kinds of solar weather that we deal with (solar flares, geomagnetic storms, and radiation storms) that affect radio communications, aircraft communication, create radiation exposure concerns for astronauts in the International Space Station and power grids; we essentially were the forecasters for the whole globe. They are starting to develop other centers, in the U.K., but for now there's just one space weather center in Boulder, Colorado, which is kind of a small division of the National Weather Service, similar to the National Hurricane Center. We talk to NASA once a day, and we talk to the Air Force twice a day, to coordinate and to make sure that everyone is on the same page of what we're expecting.
Can you tell us about KidSpace? What inspired you to start it?
It is wildly off my earlier career path, but also completely related. My kiddos are five and seven now, but when Roger and I started talking about the idea for KidSpace, it was because we would go to the local museums and would think they were intriguing, but then realize that the kids were getting antsy, and would rather go to indoor playgrounds instead.
We started to think about how we could incorporate this idea of mental learning with physical activity. I could also see my children get very excited about space and planets. Honestly, I also thought about how the current education system in our country doesn't lend itself to exploratory teaching. There is so little freedom with how teachers get to teach anymore.
So we asked, "Why can't the science teacher and the gym teacher get together to teach certain physics lessons?" Some kids understand something by looking at it on a whiteboard, and some have to touch and feel it. This is why we designed KidSpace, to capture a lot of those concepts.
At that time, both of us had worked for the government and had what most would consider to be safe jobs, so it was a big leap for both of us to go all in and hope for the best. We wanted to fund it ourselves because I don't want to be tied down to what anyone else has decided education has to look like. There are so many rules in the classroom. I want to be able to explore things — and if that doesn't work, I want to be able to explore something else. When the teachers come in, we set them up on the basics and give them information on activities that they can try in the classroom, but we don't tell them how to teach it. We want to become a platform for them to explore and come up with different ways for them to do it on their own, because they can't do it in the classroom anymore. Physics is everywhere, and science is really fun — and it can be active. It doesn't have to be just sitting around and reading about it.
Can I ask how you came up with the name? I mean, obviously it makes sense, but like the process of coming up with something like this.
We wanted to be direct. I think some of the places, you have a hard time knowing it's for children, so we wanted to make sure it has "kids" in the name and "space." It's an easy place, space itself, the whole concept of going into space and travel, and all of the stuff that's on the docket right now. They are putting in a spaceport in Colorado, so I think it's a big buzzword right now, with Elon Musk and all of that kind of stuff. It's a really easy space to add in some science and fun and beauty, and remind people that it's super cool. What we have already figured out, and what we can still figure out, is if we can just stop making it about competition, and just start making it about being interested in it again.
We are supposed to build each other up. We are so much better as a society when we look at things that way, instead of the other way. We want to give parents the opportunity. We have thought out our costs so that KidSpace can be accessible to everyone and people can visit multiple times. Maybe that means we don't make trillions of dollars, but that's not the point. The point is that we need a sense of community again. Having a mom-and-pop shop has shocked people. They often think it's a franchise. It's really funny to see how surprised they are when I tell them that I am the owner and I am on-site.
What have been some of the most rewarding parts?
I think the coolest thing I did in the military was that I worked at NORAD/NorthComm, down in Colorado Springs; they are aerospace defense and homeland defense. Those were some of the scariest briefings I have ever done, complete with four-star generals and the crazy stuff that they are watching. There is something about working at that level that is very intriguing to me, being the one that has to be the decision maker with such high stakes.
On the flip side, working at regular jobs with so much nonsensical paperwork can be such a bummer. Whether it's trying to come up with your own idea within a company or government or wherever, our society is very good at stifling people who want to make waves. It is just easier to keep things the same even if they aren't working.
The most awesome part about owning my own business is that I get to make a decision, and it might fail, and it might be amazing, but either way it's mine. I get to own it, and I get to move on from it, and I get to learn from it. It's so much more dynamic. If I want the wall to be purple, the wall is freaking purple. That's it. I don’t have to submit any requests. It's ours. There's a real beauty in doing work that has an immediate impact.
Now I get to see all of the smiles and the kiddos having a blast in here — and the parents who are like, "Oh, you guys actually care!" They talk to us and are really starting to have conversations and loosen up around us, which is awesome.
What advice would you give for people to go on their own paths?
Take the leap. Plan it. Plan it. Try to have a good framework and a good idea of what you are going for. The smartest thing Roger and I did was ask, "What's our worst, worst, worst case scenario?" And we thought, "Well, we might live in my parents' basement in Kansas while we re-group, if we lost everything." If that's my worst case, that's not so bad. My parents are pretty cool. Trying something new is not as scary as it sounds. If it doesn't work, you can try something new again. But staying where you are, knowing you are unhappy, is just an endless wheel.
What motivates you?
I like adventure. I just like challenging myself. I like to know that I can handle things, so I keep adding until someday there's just something that I can't do. Then I will do something else. I think that life can be so exciting if you let it. And I just want to keep finding new ways to make that true.
What do you hope KidSpace does For the Denver community?
I think that one of the things that our overall society lacks right now is togetherness. We have to realize that we are all dealing with things and we are all fighting for this life to be good. We are trying to do our best, and I think that we have isolated ourselves enough that it feels like you are the only one going through something. Even if you have a million friends on Facebook, they are all still just out there and it turns it into more of a competition instead a way to build each other up.
Our whole point of us doing KidSpace as a mom-and-pop-style business is to let people know that we understand. For example, our 7-year-old has autism, and we understand that if you pay when you come in and then they have a meltdown right when you walk in the door, it can feel helpless and out of control. As a parent, there isn't much you can do, and others need to understand that the child is going through something, so we can give them a rain check and let them come back. Or, we try to help them, help the kiddo focus, and be there for each other as parents, as humans. We need to help each other out and bring each other together and have real conversations again. I hope that we can set a stage for that.
Meghan is the co-owner and president of KidSpace, Inc. She was raised in Topeka, Kansas, and her degree in Atmospheric Science from the University of Kansas led her to Boulder in 2009. Meghan was a Space Weather Forecaster for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder until March of 2018. Major Meghan Stockman retired from the Colorado Air National Guard in 2018 as the lead weather officer for the Colorado Joint Forces Headquarters. Meghan had spent over 20 years in the Air National Guard doing "Terrestrial Weather." Meghan has deployed overseas numerous times as Army support weather specialist prior to becoming an officer in 2007. Meghan served as the Commander of the 127th Weather Flight for four years in Kansas prior to transferring to the Colorado Air Guard. Becoming the mother of two children (now 5 and 7) led her and her husband to create KidSpace, Inc., a children's STEM-based playground and exploration center meant to teach the laws of motion and space science through active play.
Words: Meghan Stockman
This interview has been edited for clarity.