Making Aerospace History

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Photo by Katherine Pratt

Kevin Pratt (US’ 00, C’04) helped aerospace development company Blue Origin make history recently. After the company launched a rocket at their Texas test site in November, both the capsule and propulsion module landed back on earth right side up. A second test was equally successful last month, inspiring Pratt and colleagues to press onward in their effort to offer private individuals access to space. An avionics engineer at Blue Origin, Pratt oversees the computing and electrical systems, including ground support equipment such as power supplies and computer networks—no easy task when working with very cold (-423°F) cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and a rocket engine, with 110,000 lbf of thrust (lbf means pounds of force) and 5,000°F exhaust, that goes Mach 3+ on its way to 333,000 ft. (63 miles).

While at Principia, Pratt earned a BS in computer science and took most of the courses offered in physics and chemistry. “This solid foundation in scientific areas, along with studying the liberal arts, prepared me,” Pratt says. “I gained valuable communication skills and a wide view of the world through subjects like ceramics, German, and graphic design. Ceramics taught me many material science lessons, and I’ve found that making legible, understandable engineering drawings to communicate with colleagues is often a graphic design problem.” Along with other students who shared an interest in space, Pratt convinced physics professor Dr. Paul Robinson (C’63) to teach a class in rocket science. There, Pratt learned about rocket engines, combustible materials, orbital mechanics, and other topics that have proved vital to his work.  

Principia Solar Car—Excellent Hands-On Learning

Pratt raced with the solar car team all four years, working on the mechanical and electrical aspects of Ra V. He served as team captain for three years, helping the team come in fourth at the 2003 American Solar Challenge and sixth at the 2003 World Solar Challenge. In 2004, Pratt traveled with the team to participate in Phaethon 2004, part of the Cultural Olympiad for the Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, where Principia took third place. “Solar car provided numerous opportunities for hands-on learning and developing problem-solving skills,” Pratt recalls. “We reassembled the battery pack after it was damaged during shipping to Australia in 2003, for example.”

After graduating from Principia, Pratt earned an MS in computer science at the University of South Florida. His graduate study included working on disaster response robotics—testing small, unmanned aerial vehicles for urban search and rescue applications. From there he interned at Blue Origin and was subsequently hired full time. “Space travel was always an interest, even from childhood,” Pratt says. “My dad was an Air Force pilot, and I was part of the first class of kids in the STARBASE program, attended a shuttle launch as a child, and earned my pilot’s license while attending Principia College.”

Headquartered in Kent, Washington, Blue Origin was established in 2000 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Key to the company’s business operations is the recovery and reuse of rocket vehicles in preparation for private space travel, academic research support, and corporate technology development—and Pratt’s role is integral to that recovery effort. “If we’re going to reuse a vehicle,” Pratt explains, “the ground systems need to be even more robust and reliable so that we can turn operations around quickly and efficiently.”  

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the Principia Purpose

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