Blue Origin’s Gary Lai ’95 Rockets to (Suborbital) Space

The recent mission gave the CALS alum a thrilling ride—in the capsule he helped design

By Joe Wilensky

When Gary Lai ’95 boarded Blue Origin’s rocket in late March, he was prepared to experience the flight from the perspective of an engineer; after all, he’d designed part of the spacecraft.

Lai is the chief architect and team leader of the aerospace company’s reusable rocket-and-capsule system, dubbed New Shepard, developed to carry passengers and payloads to suborbital space.

The flight was the company’s fourth with humans on board, and its 20th overall.

Gary Lai exits the Blue Origin capsule following its successful suborbital flight March 31
Exiting the capsule after touchdown.

“I approached it thinking that I would be very observant,” Lai recalls. “I’d be looking at all the features, trying to see, ‘Is this what we intended?’ That was my plan, and that’s how it worked out—until they started the rocket engine. That’s when I ceased to really think at all, because it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I was completely overwhelmed.”

Founded in 2000 by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin aims to further human spaceflight by developing more affordable and reusable launch vehicles. Lai, who joined the company in 2004, was among its first 20 employees (there are now more than 6,000).

The rise of Blue Origin—and of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic—has marked an evolution in the aerospace industry, once geared toward single-use rockets designed by Cold War-era companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

In the past couple of decades, the industry has shifted toward reusable technology, often created by startups—companies that not only contract with NASA for satellite launches and other functions that the agency traditionally conducted itself, but which are opening up the field of space tourism by offering seats to paying customers.

The six-member crew checks out the New Shepard capsule as part of the several days of preflight training
The crew checks out the capsule during preflight training.

The New Shepard flights, which carry six passengers and last about 11 minutes, cross the boundary of suborbital space—defined as just over 100 kilometers (about 330,000 feet, or 62 miles) in altitude—and feature several minutes of weightlessness and remarkable views of the curvature of the Earth against the blackness beyond. 

Bezos himself flew on New Shepard’s first crewed mission in July 2021; three months later, “Star Trek” legend William Shatner famously followed suit—becoming, at age 90, the oldest person to fly to space. And like TV’s Captain Kirk, Lai found himself unexpectedly moved by the brief voyage.

“I really didn’t have an intelligent thought in my head until after we landed,” Lai says, noting that he felt the so-called “overview effect” reported by many astronauts upon seeing Earth from space. “It was deeply imprinted on me. I can still recall every second, and I find myself daydreaming and reliving the experience.”

I really didn’t have an intelligent thought in my head until after we landed.

Prior to liftoff, Lai and his fellow passengers had spent several days training—going through simulations and emergency procedures until they’d practiced the entire mission more than 20 times. But nothing could have prepared him for the actual flight.

“There are the physical sensations of a rocket launch: you’ve got the noise, which is deafening; the acceleration is very high; the vehicle is rolling and turning, and the window on the capsule is so large that when you turn your head to look out of it, there’s nothing else in your periphery,” he recalls.

“Then the vehicle throttles back, like from 3 Gs to zero. You feel like you’re flying forward, the blood rushes to your head—and then you’re floating.”

Gary Lai and other crew members enjoy weightlessness during the suborbital flight
Lai (upside down at left) experiences weightlessness.

A native of the New York metro area, Lai matriculated on the Hill with plans to major in astronomy. But given the decade-long path to a PhD and a career in the field, he switched to agribusiness management in CALS, with an eye toward investment banking.

Then, in his senior year, he took a multidisciplinary seminar on critical thinking taught by one of his childhood heroes: astronomer Carl Sagan, in his final semester of teaching (he would pass away in December 1996).

It reignited Lai’s scientific passion, and he set his sights on becoming an engineer in the field of space exploration.

The Blue Origin New Shepard capsule parachutes to a soft landing following the suborbital flight
The capsule parachutes to a soft landing.

After graduation, Lai headed to the University of Washington (accompanying future wife Natalya Yudkovsky ’96, who was pursuing a PhD in cell biology), where he earned a second bachelor’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering.

He later landed an internship with Kistler Aerospace, one of the first startups working on reusable rocket technology.

At Blue Origin, Lai—who holds three patents in space systems technology—has had several roles, including senior director of design engineering and lead systems engineer.

(Numerous other Cornellians work there, such as astronomy professor emeritus Steve Squyres ’78, PhD ’81—a leader on NASA’s Mars rover project who joined at the company in 2019 as chief scientist—and Sarah Phelps ’99, director of astronaut experience.)

Following the March flight and successful landing, Lai was met by his wife, Natalya Yudkovsky ’96, right, to display a Cornell flag
Lai’s wife, Natalya Yudkovsky ’96 (right), joined him for a celebratory moment after the flight.

In early June, Blue Origin conducted its 21st successful launch and fifth crewed flight, and it continues to develop components for a much larger reusable launch system.

Dubbed New Glenn in honor of the legendary astronaut, the system is aimed to carry an orbital space vehicle, deliver large payloads into orbit—and, ultimately, enable the next generation of missions to the Moon.

Top: Video by Noël Heaney / Cornell University. Footage and all photos in this story provided by Blue Origin.

Published June 29, 2022


Comments

  1. Zhehao, Class of 2013

    So proud of what Gary has achieved and we definitely need more engineers to make things happen

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