Luther Alumni Magazine

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Ready for blastoff

Chances are good that space tourism will someday be commonplace. When it is, chances are very good that everyday astronauts will travel to space in a rocket that a Luther grad helped design.

Scott Roland '04
Scott Roland '04

Scott Roland ’04, who graduated from Luther’s pre-engineering program with a physics major, designs rockets at Blue Origin, a private spaceflight company in Kent, Wash., owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin wants to make space accessible and affordable for everyone. Roland compares the company to the transcontinental railroad—it will allow people to live, work, and supply goods along new frontiers in space.

It’s an ambitious vision, but the company is already defying expectations. In 2015 Blue Origin made history when it launched and then landed its New Shepard spacecraft in the first-ever vertical landing of a rocket from space. The company subsequently relaunched and re-landed New Shepard four more times, proving reusability. Blue Origin says that New Shepard is likely to launch passengers by the end of 2018. Meanwhile, the company is developing a second reusable spacecraft, New Glenn, which will carry people and payloads into space.

Roland is one of the top-level engineers designing these rockets.

Parachuting into the industry

Roland with his wife, Alyssa Roland, in front of Blue Origin’s New Shepard, which went to space and back five times.
Roland with his wife, Alyssa Roland, in front of Blue Origin’s New Shepard, which went to space and back five times.

The day New Shepard launched and landed in 2015 was the last day of Roland’s job at Airborne Systems, a parachute engineering company that had been subcontracted by Blue Origin to design the parachutes that brought New Shepard’s capsule safely to earth. “It was a great sendoff,” Roland says.

While at Airborne Systems in Southern California, Roland also worked on the design and testing of the parachutes for NASA’s Orion spacecraft, intended for manned deep-space exploration. He was able to attend several tests of the Orion capsule in Yuma, Ariz., where a full-scale mockup of the capsule was dropped from a C-17 aircraft at altitudes higher than 25,000 feet. He also worked on parachute systems for the Missile Defense Agency, designing chutes that would allow flight crews to safely leave airspace before ballistic missiles were ignited.

In addition, Roland worked on NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s low-density supersonic decelerator, designed to bring a heavy rover to the surface of Mars. His team used a rocket sled track at the China Lake Naval Weapons Center to simulate the dynamic pressure loading environment the parachutes would have to endure while entering the Martian atmosphere. “I still remember when that rocket fired, you could feel it in your chest even half a mile away!” Roland says.

Roland recalls his time at Airborne Systems as epic, saying, “It was not a big company, but there’s a lot of expertise in that niche parachute world. They gave me the groundwork for where I am today. I got exposure to all sorts of Boeings, Lockheed Martin, NASA, and Blue Origin, ironically.”

Calculating the rocket’s behavior

When Roland and his wife were ready for a move, Blue Origin hired him onto their Systems Engineering and Integration team, where Roland truly is a rocket scientist, though you won’t hear the humble native of Caledonia, Minn., proclaiming this at parties.

Blue Origin's rockets are designed to take off and land vertically, allowing them to be reused.
Blue Origin's rockets are designed to take off and land vertically, allowing them to be reused.

At Blue Origin, Roland’s job is to identify external and internal forces a rocket might encounter during transport, ascent, reentry, landing, and recovery. This means calculating the thrust produced by the engines during flight, internal tank pressures, external aerodynamic pressures, forces and accelerations produced by stage-separation events, and loads imparted on the vehicle during landing events. “Basically,” he says, “if the rocket does it, we need to have analyzed it in order to make sure the rocket is sufficiently designed to withstand it.”

Roland credits his Luther education with making it all possible. “I honestly think that if it weren’t for Luther, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. The holistic type of learning that you get at Luther isn’t like what you get elsewhere,” he says.  

His liberal arts foundation comes in handy in another way too. As an engineer, Roland has published six technical papers. “One reason I got into doing that originally,” he says, “is that a lot of the engineers I work with don’t enjoy writing—it’s not necessarily their strong suit, and they’d definitely tell you that. So having that Luther background and being able to do research on Apollo-era documents, understand what they’re saying, and apply them to other systems or applications—those are the fundamentals you have to learn as far back as Paideia.”

“A pale blue dot . . . a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”

When it launches in 2020, New Glenn will be the largest launch vehicle since NASA’s Saturn V, which was a workhorse during the Apollo program of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Roland is excited to usher in a new heyday of space travel.

“When I was a kid,” he says, “the teacher would wheel in the cart with the TV on it, and we’d watch shuttle launches. Then that sort of went away. But space exploration sets the bar high for what we can achieve if we all work together instead of tearing each other down. It’s very aspirational.”

He pauses a minute, then references Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, inspired by the photograph Voyager 1 took of Earth from four billion miles away, on the fringes of the solar system. “It’s hard not to feel insignificant,” he says. “Space really minimizes the everyday nonsense. Our day-to-day stuff doesn’t matter as much when you see that.”

Erin Flater, associate professor of physics, teaches students in one of Luther's physics labs.
Erin Flater, associate professor of physics, teaches students in one of Luther's physics labs.

Engineering at Luther

Students who study pre-engineering at Luther become well-rounded engineers. They learn a depth and breadth of knowledge that helps them to innovate and think creatively.

Most of our pre-engineering graduates pursue a graduate degree. Earning a bachelor’s degree with a major in science (such as in physics or chemistry) plus a master’s degree in engineering is a great way to become a practicing engineer. The breadth of coursework in the liberal arts required at Luther, coupled with the depth of study in a major, gives students a strong background in problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and ethical reasoning. These characteristics make Luther grads stand out among prospective applicants to engineering graduate programs.

Luther engineering-focused students graduate, in most cases, with a master’s degree in their engineering field six years after starting at Luther.

Luther pre-engineering students also have the option to enter a dual-degree program in which they complete their requirements for the bachelor’s degree at Luther in three years, then transfer to Washington University School of Engineering and Applied Science in St. Louis, Mo., to complete the requirements to become a professional engineer. The dual-degree option enables students to earn a bachelor of arts degree from Luther and a bachelor of science degree in engineering from Washington University. Another option at Washington University is a six-semester combined bachelor of science/master of science degree program.

Regardless of which path they choose, Luther graduates excel in engineering positions in diverse organizations such as NASA, IBM, John Deere, Rockwell Collins, the US Navy, and major universities.

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