Cedar Crest grad now part of rocket assembly logistics team

6 min read295 views and 91 shares Posted June 10, 2020

It’s not quite shooting the moon, exactly — but for Cedar Crest High School alumnus and Lebanon native Jordan Charles, that department’s just down the hall.

Charles, born in 1986 and raised in Lebanon, is the son of Barb Charles and Brad Charles, who’s known in the area as a judge in the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas. “I’ve always been very interested in how things work,” Charles explained in a phone interview with LebTown. “I was an avid LEGO builder growing up.”

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From 2001 to 2005, Charles attended Cedar Crest High School in the Cornwall-Lebanon School District. During his time there, he gravitated to math and science courses, and as a hobby he constructed and flew large-scale remote control airplanes in Annville. Charles named physics teacher Nathan Hansell and calculus teacher Shane Thomas in particular as instructors who “did a really great job connecting with students both theoretically and practically.”

The supply chain behind reusable rockets

Now, 15 years later, Charles is an integral part of operations at Blue Origin, the private aerospace company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. As the director of the New Glenn supply chain, Charles oversees a team responsible for “getting all of the parts required to build the rocket in the right place at the right time,” as he put it.

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New Glenn is the orbital launch vehicle unveiled by the company in 2016. It’s slated for its first launch in 2021, and, according to Blue Origin, has twice the usable payload fairing volume of any existing launch vehicle. “We are basically building, from the ground up, the world’s largest rocket,” Charles said, referring to the comparable sizes of the New Glenn rocket and the Saturn V, the NASA rocket design that launched Apollo 11 and other milestone flights in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A diagram comparing the sizes of historical rockets, along with the New Glenn projects. New Glenn is named for astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. (Charles / Blue Origin)

Charles noted that the New Glenn rocket has a huge number of parts and that only a fraction are produced by Blue Origin itself. “We actually rely on a vast supply chain across the globe to build and deliver these parts at the right time and with the right quality,” he said.

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As one of the current era’s most publicly known aerospace companies (alongside Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which launched a test of its Dragon 2 vehicle on May 30), Blue Origin’s goals reflect a major change in how rockets are designed and used.

“The big paradigm shift in the space industry is the focus on reusability,” said Charles. New Glenn is designed to have a first stage reusable for at least 25 launches. Along with the suborbital rocket New Shepard, one of Blue Origin’s other major projects, New Glenn’s reusability sets it apart from the expensive and purposefully disposable launchers of decades past.

Some well-known vehicles such as the Space Shuttle started as early, ideal plans for totally reusable spacecraft, but it’s only been in recent years that the industry has been able to make large strides towards projects that will lower mission costs, increase efficiency, and — hopefully — be capable of sending more people and technology into space.

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It’s undoubtedly an exciting time for rockets and America’s space aspirations. Charles compared the current stage of the industry to the early years of commercial flight in the 20th century.

“Imagine a time in commercial airplane travel when you land after a flight and the airplane explodes or sinks to the bottom of the ocean, never to be used again,” he said. “Not only would you be paying for the fuel and crew, you’d also be paying for a significant chunk of the airplane itself.

“So what we’re trying to do with space travel is create the commercial airplane model for getting into space.”

The road to Blue Origin and the future of spacecraft

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For Charles, the trajectory from his early academic career to Blue Origin has been one full of meaningful professional and personal achievements. At Cedar Crest, Charles was an “avid swimmer” for all four years, gaining plenty of recognition including a state title in his senior year. Additionally, Charles was the vice president of National Honor Society, ran cross-country, and participated in the student mentor program. After graduating from Cedar Crest in 2005, Charles enrolled at Duke University for his undergraduate career, majoring in mechanical engineering and materials science.

While at Duke, Charles favored hands-on engineering courses and worked with a professor of his, Dr. Adrian Bejan, to write and publish several peer-reviewed papers in academic journals on the topic of sports evolution. He joined Duke’s swim team, a pursuit and interest that occasionally converged with his academic career.

After securing his bachelor’s degree, Charles took a position at aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems division in Colorado. There, he worked as a development engineer on launch support technologies for Orion, a crew vehicle that began as a proposal for NASA’s since-cancelled Constellation Program. The Orion project is still planned to be used for spaceflight sometime this decade.

The Boeing 777X, which Charles spent over three years helping to develop. (Boeing)

Following his time at Lockheed Martin, Charles “took a foray away from space” and assumed the role of product development engineer at Boeing, helping to integrate new materials and technologies into Boeing designs. There, he secured several patents and aided in the launch of Boeing’s 777X plane.

“I was on a very small team,” Charles recalled. “When the 777X was just a concept on a napkin, there were about 20 of us working on it.”

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In 2015, after three years at Boeing, Charles enrolled at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gaining master’s degrees in both mechanical engineering and business management as a Leaders for Global Operations Fellow. “The LGO program is intended to develop leaders for large, product-focused companies,” Charles explained. He added that he felt “extremely fortunate to get into that program.”

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While at MIT, Charles took on a Nike internship at the company’s global strategy team, a position that served as a precursor to the “huge logistical challenge” of the New Glenn supply chain. He graduated from MIT in 2017 and joined Blue Origin that summer, eventually entering his current position at the end of 2018.

Read More: Cedar Crest alumnus building micro-satellites with potential to change space data collection

Jordan Charles and parents Brad and Barb in front of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket at the New Glenn rocket factory in Cape Canaveral Florida. (Charles)

Charles’ focus on aerospace has come “full circle” for him at Blue Origin, and he’s excited for what the future holds. With lower barriers to space flight and transportation, Charles believes that we will see incredible new developments in industrial applications and exploration, including manned flights, new satellite formations capable of delivering high-speed internet back to Earth, and even mining operations on the surface of the moon.

“All of this stuff sounds like science fiction,” Charles said, “but there are teams of people that are actively working on that future right now, and my team at Blue Origin is one of them.”

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In the midst of an incredible academic and professional career that started right here in Lebanon County, Charles is still in awe of the projects he helps make a reality.

“It’s an absolutely fantastic and amazing opportunity,” he said. “I typically pinch myself most days I go into work, that I have the chance to work on something so cool.”


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