“I went straight into aerospace engineering as an undergraduate and I can’t even explain why, other than the fact that, like many people of my generation, I was really inspired by Apollo,” Smith said. “My father was a pilot during the Korean War, and I think that love of flying, amplified by Apollo, was a large contributor to my interest and passion for this field. So it was never a choice for me – I have always wanted to be in the space industry.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University, master’s degree from Brown University and Ph.D. from UT Austin, Smith served for eight years at The Aerospace Corporation in a variety of roles, working on launch vehicles and some of the first GPS satellites before becoming the corporation’s director of NASA Programs. He then led several NASA Shuttle Upgrades Program at United Space Alliance for five years before spending 13 years at Honeywell Aerospace as chief technology officer and, ultimately, as president of the mechanical systems and components division.

Portrait of Bob Smith

“There really is only one problem in space, and that’s actually getting to space. Once you get to orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere.”

—Bob Smith

“The variety of my career experience has been really valuable for me because I first got to work for a federal research center — effectively a non-profit — then went on to a government contractor and finally a large commercial aerospace business,” Smith said. “So having that depth and breadth of business and technical experience gave me a good leadership foundation before coming to Blue Origin.”

In describing his excitement about the opportunity to lead Blue Origin, Smith notes that his mother said it best when she pointed out, “This is the job that 12-year-old Bobby would have wanted!” His passion for Blue Origin’s mission is certainly palpable as he discusses the company’s efforts to solve what remains the most difficult problem related to space exploration — getting to orbit easily, inexpensively and frequently.

“There really is only one problem in space, and that’s actually getting to space,” Smith said. “Once you get to orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere. NASA’s shuttle program was on the right track in terms of promoting the idea that reusable spacecraft was the path that needed to be taken. Companies like Blue Origin are standing on the shoulders of those incredible accomplishments from decades ago, and now it’s our responsibility to build the infrastructure and sustainable capabilities that get us into orbit on a regular basis.”

Though Blue Origin is working on a number of spacecraft, engines and other components that will play a role in every phase of space travel, Smith is able to sum up the company’s overall objectives in two specific goals.

“First and foremost, we believe that the cost of getting to space is just too high, so our first goal is to build scalable, reusable launch vehicles,” he said. “Because once the price, availability and safety of the vehicle is where it needs to be to get people and materials into space regularly, that will provide the foundation for accomplishing all of our other objectives in space.”

This is where Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle and New Glenn orbital launch vehicle come into play. Named after Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space, New Shepard is designed to take space travelers and research payloads past the Kármán line, the internationally recognized boundary of space — in 11 minutes. Those who take this flight will accelerate beyond Mach 3 to reach space before the capsule returns to earth and deploys its parachutes for a landing in the West Texas desert. A fully reusable vehicle, New Shepard’s 13th consecutive flight represented the seventh time one of its boosters was reused consecutively to journey to space and back, a record.

With New Shepard already proving its effectiveness, New Glenn, named after astronaut John Glenn, represents Blue Origin’s next big step — a heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of carrying people and payloads routinely to Earth’s orbit and beyond. With fully reusable components that allow the vehicle to be cost-competitive and highly available without sacrificing reliability, New Glenn will make orbital spaceflight both safer and more efficient.

“Our second major goal is determining how we actually use in-space resources,” Smith said. “Because once you’re able to get there, you don’t want to be hauling all the things you need to build a dynamic future in space out of that gravity well you just got out of. So, how do you actually go utilize these resources?”

The company’s answer is Blue Moon, a flexible lunar lander capable of delivering payloads of any size to the moon’s surface with precise and soft landings. Its ability to deliver multiple metric tons of cargo to the moon will result in fewer trips and more efficient deliveries. Coupled with Blue Origin’s other vehicles and technologies, Blue Moon will make trips to the moon and back a routine part of our everyday lives.

“Space will stop being as exotic as it has been — it will still be a remarkable place, but it will actually become a destination,” Smith said. “It will be a place where people live and work, and not only those who are sponsored by governments. Becoming an astronaut to get to space will be unnecessary.”

Ironically, Smith believes that — beyond all the tangible benefits of going to space and learning more about the cosmos — the greatest benefit of all may just be a better appreciation of Earth itself, as more of us will have an opportunity to look back and see our home planet in a new light.

“Roughly 560 people have gone to space, and they come back changed. This is known as the overview effect,” he said. “You see this small planet with no borders in a very thin atmosphere with very fragile oceans, and, suddenly, you’re comprehending things like the environmental dangers we face as we expand our usage of resources. I think the more people who have this experience, the more the idea will spread. I think there is great benefit in improving our shared understanding of Earth and what it will take to protect it in the decades to come.”