7 Questions with Erika Wagner, BE’00, Senior Director of Emerging Space Markets for Blue Origin

To watch video footage from one of Blue Origin’s crewed space launches—six have taken place so far, carrying passengers ranging from Alan Shepard’s daughter, Laura Shepard Churchley, to a member of the YouTube sensation Dude Perfect—is like seeing science fiction unfold in real-time.

One of the people responsible for getting those passengers, and other payload items like scientific equipment, into space aboard a Blue Origin flight is Erika Wagner, who graduated in 2000 with a degree in biomedical engineering. Speaking at a TEDx event near Seattle in 2015, Wagner told the audience she always loved to play on the swings as a child because they got her that much closer to the sky, where she might one day “swim among the stars.” Because of space startups like Blue Origin, that dream may soon become a reality for Wagner and many others like her.

Erika Wagner
Erika Wagner, BE’00, on-site following the successful landing of Blue Origin’s NS-19 launch.

1. Describe your role at Blue Origin.

I lead strategy, marketing, and sales efforts for the Orbital Reef space station, our joint project with Sierra Space, which will help replace the International Space Station at the end of its life later this decade. Orbital Reef is a unique step forward for Earth orbit, as it is being built from the ground up to support a mix of research and development, commercial activities, and personal space journeys. Each of these is exciting in its own way. Researchers are using the microgravity environment of space to study everything from aging to materials science to sustainable built environments. Commercial users are exploring manufacturing of unique products for use both in space and back on Earth, as well as novel ways of engaging the public through art and media. And personal space journeys are perhaps the fastest growing market of all, as we move from an era of career government astronauts to one where the rest of us are welcome at that table.

2. How did you go from studying biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt to getting a master’s and Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics? And were you involved in the Vanderbilt Aerospace Team?

Sadly, I didn’t get involved with the Aerospace Team when I was a student. When I came to Vanderbilt, I was already passionate about spaceflight, so my professors did a great job of helping me to connect my biomedical engineering major to opportunities in the field. I took astronaut Taylor Wang’s freshman seminar and did research with astronaut Drew Gaffney at VUMC. While serving as a student officer in the Engineering Council, I had the great chance to help host VUSE alum Michael Mott, who was then an executive at Boeing. That connection helped land my resume on the right desk in Huntsville and ultimately to land a summer job working Space Shuttle payload support. After graduation, I realized I needed to deepen my understanding of the aerospace industry, so I applied to graduate schools in a NASA-run network for Space Biomedical Engineering. Vanderbilt had prepared me well for interdisciplinary life. I did my master’s at MIT in aeronautics and astronauts, focused on space human factors, and my doctorate in a joint Harvard/MIT program in bioastronautics. Even today, I still get to thank my Vandy network for connecting me to opportunities for board service, community service, and professional speaking. The Commodore connection really is lifelong.

3. Can you talk a bit about your work on the XPRIZE — and share some thoughts about how “moonshot” programs like that advance science and technology?

I spent five years working with the XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit that funds large incentive prizes for breakthrough innovations. As a young PhD, I started off running their university programs, developing a teaching and research lab at MIT and later sharing it to other universities in the US and Canada. Later, I ran the foundation’s portfolio in space and deep-sea prizes, occasionally reaching back to my biomedical roots to support our work in global health. I think the most important thing I learned at XPRIZE was the power of good questions and new metrics to change the way we pursue our goals. In a study of the Progressive Automotive XPRIZE for ultra-efficient automobiles, we found that teams were able to really focus their development around the XPRIZE’s new metric of MPGe, or miles per gallon equivalent, which allowed us to compare combustion, hybrid, and electric technologies on an even playing field. And the presence of a multi-million-dollar prize allowed passionate innovators of all stripes to justify investing time and money towards the goal of a 100 MPGe vehicle that could also make it in the market.

4. How do you see companies like Blue Origin shaping—or reshaping—society’s relationship with space?

Our vision at Blue Origin is a future that someday enables millions of people living and working in space for the benefit of Earth. We are a long way from that vision, but we are absolutely trending in the right direction. In the early days of spaceflight, access was limited to a handful of governments and driven almost exclusively by geopolitical forces. The first wave of commercialization was driven by communications satellites, and that really opened a new era of innovation and investment in the fundamental infrastructure of space launch, ground stations, and workforce development. The second wave of commercialization was driven by access to space data—Earth imaging is used to monitor everything from crop fields to war zones, GPS position, navigation, and timing signals are embedded in our daily lives in dozens of ways, from the maps on our phone, to the timing behind our financial transactions. Now, we’re entering a third wave of commercialization as reusable rockets bring down the cost of launch, and both technology and experience improve reliability. We are finally ready to start putting space to work across the rest of our economy. Companies like Blue Origin are helping build the road to space so that industries as diverse as tourism, manufacturing, and energy can harness the opportunities beyond our home planet.

5. What are some of the most exciting or promising opportunities in space over the next 10-15 years?

Personally, I still hold on to the dream I’ve had since I was a kid at Space Camp down in Huntsville, Alabama:  I want to see the Earth from space and experience life in free fall. Over the next decade, those doors will be opening wider and wider. Professionally, I’m excited about the ways that this increasing access is leading new users to space. The International Space Station was built by a consortium of 15 nations, but commercial space stations like Orbital Reef will be open for global use. There are more than 70 space agencies now in existence worldwide and they are just getting started in sharing space to inspire our next generation and serve their national needs. On the commercial frontier, companies as diverse as Merck, Target, and Goodyear are bringing their research portfolios to space. We are increasingly realizing that every company is a space company. Every business plan can leverage space knowledge and data and access. We also see positive trends in opening human spaceflight to broader audiences. The Inspiration4 private space mission in 2021 included a pediatric cancer survivor with a prosthesis; in 2022, the European Space Agency named its first “parastronaut”; and nonprofits like AstroAccess are advocating for universal design to open space for an ever wider range of physical abilities.

6. What are some of the biggest challenges to overcome?

Many of the big challenges we face in the next decade are very human ones—how do we bring the best of humanity to space rather than the worst?  The U.S. Space Force was stood up to protect an increasingly contested environment, and to hopefully keep the promise of the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty that space is intended for peaceful uses and the benefit of all humankind. Increasing launch cadences and intentional anti-satellite technologies have also increased the orbital debris environment by orders of magnitude. We are going to need both new technologies and economic models to incentivize that cleanup so we can continue to use space for the benefit of Earth. And as we return to the moon, this time to stay, we need good international dialogue around healthy norms and regulations to help balance national prestige, economic growth, and equitable space access so that we can have a sustainable lunar future. I’m grateful that Vanderbilt gave me a chance to learn engineering in an environment that also valued the liberal arts, because it definitely takes more than just technology to get us to space.

7. What types of backgrounds do you typically hire from at Blue Origin — is it strictly technical?

Our team at Blue Origin comes from a diverse set of backgrounds. On the technical side, we hire from mechanical and aerospace engineering, software and avionics development, materials science, human factors, manufacturing, operations, and logistics. But it takes a broader skillset than that to build a road to space. We also need lawyers, political scientists, business professionals, designers, program managers, hospitality professionals and a wide range of other fields to support our team and customers. For students who are passionate about joining a company like Blue Origin, my number-one piece of advice is to join a technical student team. Whether you’re developing rockets, satellites, race cars, submersibles, or medical devices, that sort of real-world, hands-on teamwork and leadership is the first thing I look for in an application.