Former Detroiter leads Blue Origin’s privately funded quest for space flight
In Rob Meyerson’s bar mitzvah Torah portion — read on a colder-than-normal mid-April in 1978 at Temple Israel — Moses was given instruction on when to release a bird from the city so it could take flight over an open field. Meyerson has devoted his life to flight — not birds, but rockets. His biggest missions are yet-to-come.
Meyerson’s achievements in aeronautics started early. At 23, the Southfield High and University of Michigan alum was an aerospace engineer at the LBJ Space Center in Houston. He’d work on various NASA projections throughout the United States. During his first week, he was sent to Reno, Nev., to give a speech in front of 20,000 aerospace engineers working on the shuttle program.
Today, Meyerson is president of Blue Origin, one of the world’s most ambitious privately funded aerospace manufacturing and spaceflight services companies. The company is reportedly planning its first manned flight to take place by spring 2019. Headquartered in Kent, Wash., the business is funded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
Meyerson has never forgotten his family’s deep roots in the Midwest. His grandfather, Meyer S. Meyerson, left Russia as a child with little money. He came to the United States and settled in Detroit, where he’d live for 48 years. Often referred to as “Buddy,” he had three sons with his wife, Mary. Meyer became a restaurant legend in the area, with Buddy’s Delicatessen and Buddy’s Log Cabin Barbecue. Meyerson’s parents, Arlyn and Hester, continued the tradition with Scotch ‘n’ Sirloin, Trio and Buddy’s BBQ.
Rob Meyerson still has a keen appreciation for his local roots. In response to Detroit’s video pitch for the second Amazon headquarters, he remarked on LinkedIn: “I know this is a pitch for Amazon’s HQ2 but, damn, I love this video. My hometown is looking good! #movetheworld.”
The JN chatted with Rob about his leadership at Blue Origin and his Detroit roots. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
As you look toward the 20th anniversary of your leadership at Blue Origin in 2023, what do you envision your progress will look like?
At Blue Origin, we visualize millions of people living and working in space. We can only make that happen by dramatically lowering the cost of access to space. We simply can’t afford to throw rockets into the ocean after every launch.
As such, we’re making our systems operationally reusable, as we demonstrated with our New Shepard launch system, and our BE-3 and BE-4 engine programs. New Shepard was the first rocket in history to fly to space, return to Earth and land vertically, and then fly again and again.
What we learned from designing, building and flying New Shepard, we’re applying directly to our New Glenn Orbital Launch System. By 2023, I hope to see a future where we are regularly and reliably taking people and payloads to space. If we can do this, then we will be well on our way to fulfilling our greater vision of millions of people living and working in space.
How has your approach to innovation changed the most since you joined Blue Origin?
I spent the first 10 years of my career working in the NASA human spaceflight culture, a culture where changes and risk are carefully managed. At Blue, we have a culture of development and invention, where new ideas are tried on relatively short timelines. This approach to innovation has enabled Blue Origin to develop and fly many unique flight vehicles and technologies over the course of a decade with a small team. As we have grown, we are maintaining this culture of innovation while also serving more traditional government customers.
What has most surprised you as you reflect on the past decade of milestones?
Well, it wasn’t really a surprise, but a very important step for Blue Origin. It was two years ago in November when New Shepard became the first booster to ascend into space and successfully return to Earth for a vertical landing. Then, that same New Shepard vehicle and BE-3 engine made four subsequent flights last year, historically demonstrating vertical-powered landing after return from space and re-flight of a booster. I never doubted we could do it, and to see it actually happen and to be the first company in the world to achieve such a milestone was truly incredible.
What has been your proudest accomplishment thus far in your career?
Having the opportunity to grow a team from 10 people to more than 1,200 has been a very proud accomplishment for me. Hiring them, motivating and challenging them, developing them into engineers and leaders, and then watching them accomplish historic achievements has been uniquely satisfying and very special.
As you’ve assembled the team, what has been your most profound lesson?
Start with passion for mission. Has the candidate demonstrated his or her passion for working in the space field? This is foundational, so no amount of judgment, intelligence or experience can overcome a lack of passion for our mission.
How did your upbringing in Detroit inspire or impact your career path?
I grew up in Detroit in a family of restaurateurs. My grandparents owned the original Buddy’s BBQ on 12th Street, and my father opened the Scotch ‘n’ Sirloin, Trio and then Buddy’s BBQ on Orchard Lake Road. Through my parents, I observed firsthand what hard work is, and I’ve always been willing to put in whatever it takes to get the job done — whatever job that may be.
How did your early years at NASA impact your views on the ways private industry should be involved with aerospace development?
So many people grow up wanting to work for NASA, and the agency has done a terrific job hiring them and putting them to work doing inspiring things. NASA is filled with incredibly smart and passionate people. I learned so much about the fundamentals of engineering, project management and, more importantly, discipline and attention to detail working for NASA. I appreciate the time and effort that many of NASA’s leaders dedicated to mentoring and training me.
What I’ve learned since I left the agency is how much more enjoyable work can be when you are focused on a long-term vision. My work has become my calling.
As the state of Michigan focuses on educating students for the next generation of careers, what would be your advice to the governor on fostering skills in K-12 that can make our school systems more competitive?
I’d like to see a focus on providing project-based learning opportunities for students in K-12 — opportunities that allow students to work as teams and apply what they’ve learned to real projects. I’ve watched the impact of FIRST robotics on K-12 students throughout the years and see how important it is to develop real-world skills — teamwork, project management, communication, leadership and followership, marketing and outreach. These are after-school opportunities that should be offered in addition to, not instead of, a solid educational foundation.
Did you have any notable or meaningful experiences at Southfield High School you’d like to share?
I graduated from Southfield High School in 1983 and was a co-captain of the cross-country team my senior year. We had a great team of runners and qualified for the state meet as a team for the first time in school history. Our reward was the opportunity to travel to Flint to run on the golf course in the worst weather conditions I can remember — freezing rain — absolutely miserable conditions. But we did it as a team, and I remember it fondly today.
Do you still have connections to Michigan?
Yes, my parents still live in the region, as do two of my four siblings. I visit with my wife and three kids at least once a year and look forward to enjoying the Detroit area.
Over the past several years, we’ve been to a Tigers game, the Franklin Cider Mill, Sanders, Eastern Market, Belle Isle, Cranbrook and the riverfront.
We’ve been thrilled to watch the construction of the District Detroit and look forward to seeing the progress that’s been made this year.
And, of course, I always enjoy the food. Every visit to Detroit includes a trip to Buddy’s Pizza, Stage Deli and Lafayette Coney Island.
Adam Finkel Contributing Writer
“At Blue Origin, we visualize millions of people living and working in space.”
— Rob Meyerson, president, Blue Origin