NC research lab tech soars to new heights with job in space flight industry

It turns out, the sky ISN’T the limit for Niagara College grad and Research staff member Ben Laurence.

The recent NC Mechanical Engineering Technology grad, who has been working at as a Research Laboratory Technologist for the College’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre since graduating in 2015, is taking on the opportunity of a lifetime to work in the space flight industry.

At the end of February, the lifelong Niagara resident (Welland) will be moving to Seattle, Washington to embark on a new career in the space travel industry. Laurence, 35, has been hired to work with the Structural Design and Configuration team at Blue Origin — an American privately-funded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company set up by founder Jeff Bezos – where he will design, analyse, test, and fly structural components for the New Shepherd spacecraft. New Shepherd was the first vehicle in human history to fly itself to space and return safely to Earth for future use. Its first-manned test flights are earmarked for later this year.

“This is beyond what I have ever dreamed,” said Laurence. “My family has always been immersed in aviation and I’ve always wanted to work with airplanes even as a kid. The fact that right now I have a chance to work with space craft is just mind-boggling.”

Laurence enrolled at Niagara College after completing a BA in the political sciences as well as a certificate in aeronautics and commercial aviation training.  He applauded not only the high quality of College’s Mechanical Engineering program itself, but the experience he gained through the program’s co-op components.

As part of a junior co-op at Aquatic Sciences Inc., Laurence developed a system to monitor unmanned submarines and relay information to its pilot. He was also part of a 12-person team which set a world record for longest underwater tunnel inspection, over 10 km through the Andes Mountain range in San Fernando, Chile. During a senior co-op experience at Magellan Aerospace in Winnipeg, Laurence created and implemented a laser positioning system used to build the composite wing structures for the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet.

“The program is phenomenal; I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity that the College provided me,” he said. “The co-op program allowed me not only to get my feet wet but to really do some important design work which was itself was such a good opportunity.”

He began working for the College’s Research & Innovation Division in January 2012 during his first semester. In September 2014, he was promoted to senior research associate. “While the [Mechanical Engineering] program is fundamental for gaining background knowledge and information you need to do anything in engineering, working in research allowed us to experiment and play and figure out where our strong skills were and weaker ones were, a better idea of your own capabilities.”

Laurence credits the work he does at Research & Innovation for the regular stream of job offers he receives – both for himself and for the number of co-op students he employs. He said his work in research at NC was instrumental to him getting recruited by Blue Origin.

“Working in the Research Centre has given me such a unique skill set that I would not have been able to get anywhere else, because of the nature of the work we do here,” he said. “We’re often the first organization that’s touching the software or touching the equipment or trying to apply it to real problems that the industry faces.”

He is proud of the work he has been a part of in the College’s research lab. He has worked on dozens of research projects at NC, built dozens of prototypes and countless laser inspections and reverse engineering projects. “We have one of the most capable 3D printing labs in the country and have done some ground-breaking and innovative work with 3D printing developments.”

He also values the design experience he has gained while at NC. “We have our hands in building machines for aerospace, for medical purposes, for agriculture, for manufacturing – everything we do is so diverse,” said Laurence. “It makes us really well rounded for R and D purposes.”

Manager of the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre Jim Lambert noted that Laurence is a real success story and that it was no surprise that Blue Origin sought him out.

“We are very excited that Ben has finally nailed his dream job in aerospace designing rocket ships for future space travel. I am very proud of him,” he said. “Although he will be missed, we are encouraged knowing that his years spent with Niagara College faculty and staff are forever woven into the fabric of Ben’s ongoing technological career.”

Leaving the college for Blue Origin is bittersweet for Laurence, because it means leaving the College and life in Niagara – a region he loves.

“I was super excited to work here at the College. I love everything about working here, it’s such a great team and, honestly, I’d love to come back to the college someday. I think what the college does is super important,” he said. “Life is good and Niagara is such a beautiful place with so much opportunity.”

At the same time, Laurence looks forward to the next leap forward in his career.

“The human desire to explore, to go find the scientific action … to discover and understand – that, to me, is extremely important, and space travel represents the highest and purest form of that,” he said. “I’d be hard-pressed to find anything more meaningful to dedicate my profession to.”

Laurence’s last day at the College will be Feb.17 and he will begin his new position at Blue Origin on February 27.