When the Sky is Just the Jumping Off Point

June 7, 2021

Zach Barnes
Photo courtesy of Zach Barnes.

As an undergraduate student, it’s easy to dream about launching rockets into space, but the reality is often very different. Unless you are UAF junior Zach Barnes. Barnes is a 2021 Students2Startups intern working with The Launch Company.

Students2Startups, funded through a grant to Center ICE by the Office of Naval Research, pairs University of Alaska students with startup companies to gain valuable experience in their fields of interest, as well as learn more about that world of startups and innovation.

The Launch Company helps launch new space commercial companies’ hardware into orbit faster by helping them design launch sites and by building parts for their rockets.

Ben Kellie, The Launch Company founder and chief executive officer, is a UAF mechanical engineering graduate who thought outside of the corporate engineering box. After earning a master’s degree from Ohio State University, he landed himself a job at SpaceX, where he rose rapidly through the ranks overseeing the launch of a new generation of rocket from a brand-new pad that he helped build. He also led the field team building the barge where the company famously landed its first rocket for reuse.

On returning to Alaska, he started his own companies — K2 Dronotics, which serves Alaska industry in remote locations with drones for inspections and mapping, and The Launch Company. Kellie and The Launch Company have made a point of reaching out to Alaska students at all levels of their education.

“We love any chance we get to work with local students who are interested in getting involved in what Alaska has to offer in aerospace,” said Hannah Crayton, tech operations engineer for The Launch Company. Kellie was unavailable for comments as he and his wife are expecting a baby.

Thinking outside the box is also one of Barnes’ strong suits. He wanted to work toward a mechatronics degree — that’s a degree blending mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science to design, build and operate smart machines. The degree is only offered in larger universities like MIT or Stanford. Being an Alaska resident, and having access to in-state tuition, Barnes decided to create his own mechatronics degree; he is double majoring in mechanical and electrical engineering with a focus in computer engineering. Oh, and he is a licensed airplane pilot! Following in his dad’s footsteps, Zach relishes the freedom of flying around the state for fun.

For his internship, Barnes will be working on various projects with The Launch Company.

“Zach will be working a variety of projects at the company but is starting out on development research for our Multi-User Launch Site, or MULS, prototype,” said Crayton. “This is mobile ground support equipment that moves via standardized shipping containers to fuel launch vehicles. He'll assist our engineers in the design and development of this prototype and will also aid in the hands-on work we have going on in the shop. In addition to the MULS prototype work, he will help standardize internal processes to aid our AS9100 certification.”

Barnes says he is willing to learn what he needs to in order to be competent enough to be useful to the engineers. He’s also hoping for the potential to use his mechatronics training for working on coupling systems, among other things.

When asked about working for Kellie, Barnes said, “It’s quite intimidating with all that he has done. He seems like a very cool guy.”

Barnes is pretty cool, too. He is the current president of the UAF Aeronautics Club, mentored by electrical and computer engineering faculty Michael Hatfield, and has been competitively building and flying unmanned vehicles with his teammates for the past few years. He has been working on the weight- carrying capacity, capability, stability and drag analysis of his planes. He has also been incorporating the electrical side of his brain working with the controllers and wiring of the aircraft.

Hatfield actually compares Barnes to a young Ben Kellie. “Ben worked for Prof. Denise Thorsen in the Alaska Space Grant Program Laboratory, and because of the connections he made, the motivation he had and the skillset he gained, he went to work for SpaceX for a few years.”

Barnes takes the comparison in stride. The quietly confident 6’4” 20- year- old from Palmer is not in a hurry. His dream job? “Something where I can just tinker, fiddle around with something to get it to work,” he said.

The thing that makes his face light up, though, is the computer side of things, including the CPU — the central processing unit — of a computer , the brains behind a computer-driven system. He’s also eager to work with the CNC mill — the computer numerical controlled milling system that can work at a faster and far more precise scale than any human to make exact, custom-designed, precision parts and pieces for airplanes and other machinery.

Working with a startup company wasn’t what Barnes planned for his career path. His dreams had been to work for NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Raytheon. However, he knew it would be tough to be creative there. With a smaller company, interns have the ability to give back to the company in a more profound way.

“The Launch Co. is a bootstrapped company, so having interns through programs like Students2Startups gives Launch Co. the ability to create processes, become leaner and give some of our overworked team members some help,” added Crayton.

“You don’t get to start to do interesting stuff until you’ve been there 10 or 20 years, and at a startup I could definitely get to do more interesting stuff far quicker,” says Barnes.

Wanting to push the envelope, Barnes is already looking past an internship that hasn’t finished yet and is imagining how it could help launch his career. Space travel and developing a single-stage reusable space plane is where his big picture sights are aimed, though he says the $60 million price tag is beyond his current student income level.

When asked what advice he has for other students, he says, “If you can find a passion, hold onto it.”

He sees the hard work broken into three pieces: motivation, determination and discipline. That, along with a lot of momentum. He cautions against stopping and braking that drive, opining it is too hard to get started again. “When you build up the momentum it becomes very easy to do some really insane stuff,” he added.

Until reusable human-rated spacecraft become a reality, or Barnes finds himself a major financial windfall, he will continue embracing his momentum and working with the aero club, completing his self-designed mechatronics degree, and maybe even helping launch rockets into space, Barnes will likely see  that for him the sky is actually not even close to the limit!