Not many people can say they helped make history in their first job, but Ron Bliesner ’11 BS, ’13 MS, is one of those few.

Ron Bliesner (center) examines the cryogenic chamber in Dr. Leachman's (left) lab.
Ron Bliesner (center) examines the cryogenic chamber in Dr. Leachman’s (left) lab.

When the New Shepard vertically landed back on Earth after a trip to space, the first rocket to successfully do so, Bliesner was cheering with his Blue Origin colleagues at a watch party. Bliesner is part of the fluid systems group at Blue Origin, the Jeff Bezos’ company that is working on technologies that will one day enable people to live and work in space. In November, the company had its first successful landing of New Shepard, an early test of a rocket that will take you and I to space for four-minutes of weightlessness. The rocket made history again in January, when it safely landed after a second trip to space, making it the first proven reusable rocket, which is an important milestone toward opening space to more people.

WSU alumni Ron Bliesner is celebrating in the top left screen, second row, black sweatshirt.

“It’s surreal and humbling,” Bliesner says of working for Blue Origin. “I remember watching the vehicle emerge from the giant cloud of dust and thinking that this was the dawn of a new era not only for space flight, but for the human race as a whole.”

A new era has indeed arrived – and seems to be thriving in Washington State. In between the two Blue Origin missions, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, which recently opened an office in Redmond, also had a successful launch and landing if its main rocket, the Falcon 9. Washington is also home to other space companies, including the asteroid-mining Planetary Resources and rocket engine manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne. The Washington Department of Commerce recently established a Washington State Space Coalition to help the industry continue to grow and thrive in the state.

Part of what any healthy industry needs is access to a talented workforce, something Planetary Resources’ COO Chris Vorhees highlighted at a conference last year. WSU and the state’s other universities help fill that need by preparing students with the education and hands-on experience they need to be strong job candidates. Bliesner is one of a dozen WSU graduates working at Blue Origin. After receiving his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, he stayed on at WSU as a master’s student in Jake Leachman’s lab.

Dr. Leachman is a common thread between many of the Cougar alumni currently working at Blue Origin, due to his focus on giving students real-world experiences.

“What makes WSU unique – and I hear this from other graduates too – is that you get a lot of hands-on experience,” Bliesner said. “I started working in Jake’s lab my senior year, and got my hands dirty right away, which gave me a feel for what I wanted to do as a grad student and beyond.”

One of the first things Bliesner did when starting in Leachman’s lab was to retrofit old equipment into a usable vacuum chamber and cryogenic testing facility. Bliesner had never built anything like that before, and it took a lot of turning wrenches, swapping out fittings, and trial and error to finish.

“Having the experience of learning on the go at WSU prepared me for the work I am doing at Blue Origin,” Bliesner said. “There are no manuals for the valves and other parts we are building, so I have to be able to problem solve.”

Bliesner’s next plans? To launch more rockets. So when you take your first trip beyond the atmosphere, remember to thank Bliesner, and all of the curious people nurtured by quality education.