Bainbridge High School graduate Kyle Nyberg, 32, always wanted to be an aerospace engineer, and through years of hard work became the launch vehicle manager for Jeff Bezos’ New Shepard Rocket at Blue Origin, which completed its successful mission taking people to space last week.
Named after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard (the first American to go to space), New Shepard is a reusable suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Karman line — the internationally recognized boundary of space. It was developed as a commercial system for suborbital space tourism. The flight takes 11 minutes, and the vessel has room for six astronauts, according to the Blue Origin website.
Last week’s launch was the first to have people on board after Blue Origin completed endless test trials. Those on the flight consisted of Bezos, Mark Bezos (Jeff’s younger brother), Wally Funk (esteemed aviator and astronaut candidate from Project Mercury), and Oliver Daemen (Dutch student and private pilot). The flight was historic as Funk, 82, became the oldest person to fly to space, and Daemon, 18, became the youngest.
“It was one of our most flawless launches to date, even with the added pucker factor,” Nyberg said. “We’ve been practicing this for years … and folding in tens of thousands of hours of improvements in procedures and hardware. That effort paid off beautifully.”
The launch took nearly four minutes to go about 66 miles straight up. The top speed was 2,230 mph, almost three times the speed of sound. It took them just over six minutes to come back down. The capsule landed about one mile from the original launch location in West Texas.
“I was in the office well before dawn to watch the live coverage with hundreds of my colleagues at our headquarters in Kent,” Nyberg said. “The energy in the auditorium was like a football stadium. People were hugging and high-fiving after the crew capsule landed safely back on Earth. After celebrating with the team for a few hours, I was ready to go home and take a long nap.”
Nyberg has been working with New Shepard since September 2016 in the same role — vehicle manager of the Tail 3 Rocket Booster. The New Shepard consists of a “booster” and “crew capsule” mated together on the launch pad. They ascend together into space, but separate near the highest point, and then land separately -the crew capsule under parachutes and the booster under rocket power, which touches down softly at its own landing pad, Nyberg said.
For five years, Nyberg’s managed Tail 3 through seven spaceflights as part of the test program. Although Nyberg doesn’t manage the booster (Tail 4) that took Bezos and others to space, his preparation work with Tail 3 has “been instrumental in the flight test program of New Shepard over the years, to prove the rocket design performs reliably and is safe for its brethren (Tail 4 and Nose 2) to carry people to space,” he said.
Nyberg is essentially the “owner of the flight readiness of the rocket booster,” meaning he is responsible for signing his name and declaring the vehicle as “ready” to launch into space. He has signed his name seven times, and the rocket he’s responsible for returned to Earth each time.
Nyberg said on a reusable rocket there is a “launch cycle” that repeats. Starting on launch day, the booster and capsule fly to space, they safely land back on the ground, and, before sundown, they are returned into the hangar they rolled out from that same morning.
“When the rocket returns to the hangar, it doesn’t look like a new car rolling off the lot— it looks beaten and worn— it’s covered in soot and char,” Nyberg said. “This is when my team and I start our work. We spend days and nights performing health checks on all the vehicle systems, as we remove access panels and hook up diagnostic tools, like a doctor with a stethoscope.
“We figure out everything that must be done to the rocket, what replacement parts are required, what people and skillsets are needed to fly out to the Texas hangar to perform the work, and how much time the entire process will take, to help inform the next launch date,” Nyberg said.
Have you always wanted to be an aerospace engineer?
Since I can remember I wanted to become an aerospace engineer and an airline pilot. Starting at age 13 I began volunteering at an antique aircraft restoration shop near Port Townsend to earn my private pilot license. It became an intense, six-year mentorship program under a hot-blooded ex-Army drill sergeant, who taught me how to restore and flight-test vintage aircraft from the 1930s and ’40s. I passed the final piloting exam my junior year of BHS and began flight training the younger volunteers, even partway into college at the University of Washington. Airplanes are still very dear to me, but through the entire experience, I found that spending hours in a cockpit at cruising altitude was less stimulating than I had imagined. I find greater enjoyment in designing, building and maintaining aircraft (or rockets).
How did your work experience prior to Blue Origin prepare you for this role?
After graduating UW with my aerospace degree in 2011, I spent five years as a rocket mechanic for a 10-person startup company in Mojave, Calif., called Masten Space Systems. I did far more wrench-turning than engineering and gained a tremendous amount of intuition in all things mechanical (teardown and overhaul of rocket engines, hand-carving foam molds to lay-up carbon fiber parts, TIG welding rocket chassis, etc.). Spending a “Ph.D.’s worth” of time as a mechanic was a force-multiplier for the kind of career trajectory I care about as an engineer that oversees mechanics. You can vividly imagine and work through a complex maintenance task in your head— what the body position of the technician will be, what tools they’re holding, what the environment is like (are they outside? is it hot? dusty?) and author the procedure accordingly. Most technicians are relieved to hear you share a background in turning wrenches, and it can really amplify the trust-building that needs to occur as a fresh-faced engineer in the hangar.
How did you end up with Blue Origin?
It was incredibly difficult, and spanned nearly a full year. I first applied to become a Test Engineer but was rejected in the final round, after a six-hour gauntlet of technical interviews from the company’s experts. They closed up my application and gave me the “good luck out there” email which absolutely leveled me. I was heartbroken, after spending five years working on nearly identical technology in the Mojave desert. Working at a startup company is a blessing and a curse— you’re blasted with a firehose of experience and wear a dozen different hats, but you tend to walk out as the jack of all trades and master of none. In larger aerospace companies, there can be less of a need for these types because they’ll have entire teams made up of “masters of that one thing,” and when you’re competing against these experts for roles— they’ll wipe the floor with you. Through some luck, my resume resurfaced for the “Vehicle Manager” role— to oversee the entire rocket as an integrated system and make all the pieces fit together. Turns out, this job requires knowing “a little bit about a lot of things,” and then having a team of subject-matter experts working alongside you to handle the details. In the end, this was the perfect role for my skillset and passion— that first rejection was a necessary step, as I reflect back.
What does this successful launch signify?
We’ve proven we can safely carry people to space (albeit for a short trip). This is literally just the beginning of our long-term ambitions as a company. Carrying humans to space and back safely is incredibly difficult (it took us 10 years to develop) but that’s not good enough for our future plans— we need to maintain the same level of safety, but also make it simpler, easier and cheaper. We have a pretty good understanding of how to approach this, but the implementation will be difficult. The holy grail we’re aspiring towards is the incredible success of commercial airliners over the 20th century. It’s very easy to overlook the astonishingly safe track record of commercial airliners (given the number of daily flights and millions of miles traveled—automobiles are outrageously dangerous by comparison). But for airliners, simply flying humans in a safe manner is nowhere near sufficient— the tickets need to be affordable, and flights need to be right on time (even a 20-minute delay causes groans). Boeing, Airbus, and all the airlines have been fine-tuning this for literally a century, and it shows. When an airliner lands at SeaTac after traveling across the country at 30,000 feet and 600 mph through thunderstorms, there’s no team of mechanics taking off access panels and performing deep-dive inspections— they just refill the gas tank, swap out passengers and take off again. We’re a ways off from the “gas and go” pinnacle within the rocket industry. We perform excruciatingly detailed inspections of the rocket between launches, while we anchor our analytical models to the real-life vehicle hardware. This also happens with brand new airliner designs during their flight testing. Safety is our No. 1 priority.
What’s next for your career path?
I’ve already accepted an offer to become one of the lead engineers in Mission Control for future New Shepard launches. If you’ve ever seen photos from the Apollo days with the engineers wearing their headsets and rolled-up sleeves as they troubleshoot issues— that will be my new job (although we don’t wear the same cool vests they did). I’ve spent the last 10 years learning how to build and maintain rockets, and am now curious to learn how to launch and fly them. I plan to fly to space in my lifetime, and I believe a number of the students on Bainbridge will be joining me eventually, and maybe even working up in orbit as part of their careers.