Black, gold, and blue: Purdue alums make their mark at Blue Origin

New Glenn, named after NASA astronaut John Glenn, is a heavy-lift orbital launch vehicle in development by Blue Origin. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

It’s not really a stretch to imagine a child who built a periscope to see over the tall counter at her mom’s pharmacy and out into the store growing up to become director of New Glenn System Definition and Design at aerospace pioneer Blue Origin. There, continuing Purdue University’s storied history in space, Tamaira Ross runs a team that tackles design integration architecture, from launch vehicle to launch pad and landing ship. Her purview is New Glenn, a heavy-lift launch vehicle with a revolutionary reusable first stage that will carry humans and payload to Earth orbit and beyond, paving a road into space.

New Glenn, of course, is named after John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth — a name as resonant as Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon and a Purdue graduate.

Some 25 Purdue alums are writing new chapters in space at Blue Origin, which recently completed its third crewed space flight across the Kármán line, about 62 miles above Earth’s mean sea level and into space, on its reusable suborbital launch vehicle New Shepard. Onboard the second crewed flight in October 2021 was Audrey Powers, VP for New Shepard mission and flight operations, a Purdue graduate (BS ’99, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering), who accompanied Capt. Kirk — er, William Shatner — and two others on the 11-minute voyage.

Count David Helderman as another of the Purdue alums at Blue Origin who caught the space bug early. He’s director of Alabama Test Operations, responsible for all operations at the historic Test Stand 4670 in Huntsville (the test stand was built in 1965 during the Apollo space program to develop and test the Saturn V rocket, which first launched humans to the Moon). “I have always loved space and problem solving,” Helderman said. “My parents still have pictures of me drawing spaceships from when I was 5. It’s something that has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember.”

Heather Wiest (MSAAE ’13, PhD AAE ’17) joined Blue in 2017. The Purdue graduate is a mechanical engineer in Blue Origin’s Launch Facilities Development Group in Cape Canaveral, Florida. She designs launch pad fluid systems that will be used to support the launches of New Glenn, which has twice the payload capacity of any existing launch vehicles, and a reusable first stage designed for a minimum of 25 flights.

All emphasize the vital role that engineering plays in space. “Space is the next frontier and the one we have relatively minimal experience with,” said Helderman. “This means there are an endless amount of engineering problems to be solved to enable the millions of people who will one day be living and working in space.” Ross concurs, “Space exploration does not happen without engineering.”

Point of Origin

The Blue team members all determined that Purdue’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AAE) was the clear choice for their studies. Blue Origin takes its name from the planet Earth being the point of origin. It could be said that Purdue’s AAE school is a similar point of origin — for astronauts. Of the 27 in Purdue’s Cradle of Astronauts, 18 are AAE alumni.

Tamaira Ross (BSAAE ’96, MSAAE ’98)

“As I was researching schools, I discovered that many astronauts had attended Purdue, the most of any civilian institution, so that definitely interested me,” said Ross, who got her master’s in Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue in 1998 and a bachelor’s in 1996. She also has Boilermaker in her blood. “Both of my parents are Purdue graduates, in Pharmacy and Electrical Engineering. I had a lot of early exposure to the University.”

Helderman, who also received his BS and MS degrees from AAE, said he ultimately selected the school for its outstanding engineering programs and highly regarded aerospace engineering department. But he was already leaning that way. “My parents and younger brother are Purdue graduates,” he said, “something we are all proud of. I remember growing up not only watching Drew Brees and Glenn ‘Big Dog’ Robinson, but also getting to go to campus in the 1990s to see Neil Armstrong speak, something that I still remember to this day.”

Wiest picked Purdue to study at the largest academic propulsion lab in the world. “I chose Purdue to work at Zucrow Laboratories,” she said. “I completed my master’s and PhD while doing experimental gas turbine combustion research under Stephen Heister, the Raisbeck Engineering Distinguished Professor for Engineering and Technology Integration, in the High Pressure Laboratory (ZL3). The hands-on experience I had in designing, building, operating and analyzing data for my own combustion experiment at HPL shaped me into the engineer I am today.”

The alums led active lives on campus when not cracking the books. Ross earned her pilot’s license while at Purdue, walked on to the women’s golf team, and was in the Tae Kwon Do club. Helderman was on the Solar Race Team, where he planned, organized and drove in an 800-mile tour of Indiana. Wiest was active in Aero Assist, the Zucrow Student Association and the Society of Women Engineers. “I also loved playing intramural sports, especially inner-tube water polo and dodgeball,” she said.

Pioneering company

Blue Origin was founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos with the vision of millions of people living and working in space for the benefit of Earth. To fulfill that vision, Blue Origin has focused on increasing access to space through reusable rockets. In 2015, it made history by being the first to successfully launch and land a reusable rocket.

The Purdue alums take pride in their work at the innovative company. “The most satisfying part of my job is taking a group of talented individuals and enabling them to become a high-performing unit,” Helderman said. “Driving a strong technical team to confront the extensive engineering challenges within a spaceflight arena is something that truly excites me every day.”

Wiest cited the satisfaction gained from taking a job from start to finish. “I have been at Blue for almost five years, and I have had the opportunity to watch LC-36 [Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station] go from piles of strategically placed dirt to a substantially complete launch pad,” she said. “I can’t wait to start my transition from design to operations and be part of launching New Glenn.”

Added Ross: “I’ve worked on New Glenn since close to the beginning of the program. With all the products I’ve developed, it is very gratifying to take them from concept to completion. I’m looking forward to doing that for New Glenn also.”

Onward in Space

David Helderman (BSAAE ’06, MSAAE ’09)

Helderman is looking forward to what’s next — where we are headed in human space flight and space exploration. “The future will almost certainly involve a combination of space vehicles, space stations, and likely outposts on other bodies like asteroids, moons and planets,” Helderman said. “The next step is low-cost, affordable access to space, something that nearly all commercial aerospace companies are working toward today.”

Once we achieve that, he said: “We can expect an explosion of opportunities in space, with more and more people having access to those opportunities. Within our lifetime, seeing a permanent human presence on the Moon and visits to other planets and moons is not only a possibility but highly likely, given all the different companies working to open up space.”

Ross also envisions many people having the chance to experience space flight, and that number increasing year on year. “Aircraft pilots and commercial air travel were once a rarity, just like space travel is today,” she said. “I think space travel will become more routine in the future, and that makes this an exciting time when we’re laying the foundation for that future.”

The alums are revved about the 19 consecutive successful New Shepard flights, the most recent of which took place on December 11, 2021. For Helderman, it really struck close to home. “New Shepard’s first human crewed flight was a major milestone for me personally,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be invited to Van Horn, Texas, to watch the flight live, nearly 12 years after starting at Blue Origin and working on the New Shepard program. I spent many years working on the BE-3PM engine that powered New Shepard, and it was an incredibly emotional event after 12 years of hard work.”

Heather Wiest (MSAAE ’13, PhD AAE ’17)

Wiest has a personal recollection of an earlier New Shepard success. “I remember watching the New Shepard in-flight escape test in October 2016 from a conference room in Armstrong Hall at Purdue,” she said. “It was the fifth successful launch and landing for that booster, and it occurred around the same time I accepted my full-time offer from Blue Origin. That flight confirmed I was making the right decision to join Team Blue.”

That excitement has spilled over into the general population — crucial to the ongoing growth in space. “Engineering is not the only ingredient necessary for human space exploration,” Ross said. “It takes public will and support to go beyond Earth. I’m encouraged by the uptick in public interest in space exploration and commercial companies pursuing space projects. I’m very glad that people outside of the aerospace industry are excited again about space exploration — that was not the case only a few years ago. As an engineering community, we need to bring the rest of humanity along with us on the journey.”

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