Blue Origin Rocket

Alex Weldon ’14 Ph.D Aiding Blue Origin’s New Shepard, New Glenn Space Traveler Projects

The Lehigh grad is helping develop rockets and engines for future space travelers.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Courtesy of Blue Origin

Growing up in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, Alex Weldon ’14 Ph.D. dreamt of becoming an astronaut. In awe, he watched video footage of astronauts working in Skylab, the first U.S. space station launched in the 1970s, and later, footage of the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope.

In high school, he got a job at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where astronauts were projected onto IMAX movie screens playfully tossing M&M candies at each other inside their cabin as they lived and floated weightlessly in space.

Now, as director of engines, materials & processes engineering at the aerospace company Blue Origin, Weldon hopes to help make space travel accessible to everyone.

“I enjoy the way I’m impacting the space industry now, and I think there’s a lot more opportunities for private astronauts,” Weldon said. “When I went to undergrad, the only option in the U.S. was through NASA.”

Alex Weldon ’14 Ph.D. in front of Blue Origin capsule

Alex Weldon ’14 Ph.D. is director of engines, materials & processes engineering at Blue Origin.

After earning a chemical engineering degree from Princeton in 2008 and his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Lehigh, Weldon eventually landed at the private space travel company, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, envisions millions of people living and working in space to the benefit of the Earth’s health.

Until his sophomore year at Princeton, Weldon had still hoped to join NASA, but that year NASA changed its guidelines to exclude people with vision problems, and Weldon wears contact lenses. He has yet to make it into space, but Weldon is hopeful it will still happen. In the past 10 to 15 years, the private space flight industry has taken off.

“I think it’s a very exciting time to be involved in the space industry because historically it was all government missions,” he said.

Weldon and his team have worked on projects including New Shepard, a reusable suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads to the Kármán line—the internationally recognized boundary of space. Named after Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space, the rocket successfully completed its sixth human spaceflight and 22nd flight in August.

Weldon’s team also develops rocket engines for outside companies and recently delivered new BE-4 engines for the first launch of United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket. Blue Origin says BE-4 is the most powerful liquified natural gas engine to date and will end reliance on Russian engines.

Weldon’s team is also working on New Glenn, named after astronaut John Glenn. Still in development, New Glenn will be a heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of carrying people and large payloads into space, such as parts of space stations and satellites.

Blue Origin hopes to develop the infrastructure to move polluting industries into space as part of its long-term vision of millions of people living and working in space for the benefit of Earth.

At Lehigh, Weldon worked with James Gilchrist, the Ruth H. and Sam Madrid Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Weldon was very driven from the get-go, Gilchrist said.

“He was focused on research, he was focused on becoming an astronaut, he was focused on all sorts of extreme challenges,” Gilchrist said. “At the same time, he has always been an extremely humble person who always made a positive impact on those around him.”

Weldon completed his doctoral research in Gilchrist’s Laboratory for Particle Mixing and Self-Organization and went on to do postdoctoral research in chemical engineering and scalable nanomanufacturing. Weldon also gained leadership experience serving as lab representative when Gilchrist was on sabbatical and when managing teams of interns as part of a summer internship program sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“When you work toward a Ph.D., it is expected your advisor will challenge you,” Gilchrist said. “Alex always challenged himself more than the challenges I gave him.”

The experience helped Weldon transition into his position at Blue Origin, where he hopes to continue contributing to the evolving space industry.

“Blue’s mission is really inspirational,” Weldon said. “It’s building the road toward millions of people living and working in space to benefit Earth. ... There are more opportunities for people to go into space every year.”

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Courtesy of Blue Origin

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