How rural Alaska tinkering prepared a SpaceX engineer to launch rockets

Ben Kellie took a short path from helping his bush pilot father in Nikiski to launching SpaceX rockets in California. Now he's back working in rural Alaska aviation, but with skills for technology innovation he learned in the commercial space industry.

Kellie rose rapidly at SpaceX, 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.

His engineering degree was not as prestigious as some co-workers' and he said his grades were average. But the can-do spirit he learned in Alaska made him especially valuable at an upstart space company with a Kitty Hawk culture of rapid innovation.

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He was lead engineer on the first launch, worth more than $100 million, at the new pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, on time and successfully. He was 15 months out of school.

"A launch site is not a very academic place," Kellie said. "The main things I brought to that job are things I learned here."

His boss seemed to agree.

"Ben is among one of the most outstanding engineers and leaders I've worked with in over a quarter-century in the space business," wrote Lee Rosen, SpaceX vice president for mission and launch operations, in a LinkedIn recommendation. "He is unique in his rigorous engineering analytic capacity combined with intellectual curiosity and hands-on, scrappy, get-it-done capability."

Although he's now living in Anchorage, Kellie continued working on contract with SpaceX as recently as last month.

Kellie's father, Mike, also had an engineering degree, but didn't use it, instead operating a flight service called Air Supply Alaska that delivered cargo to villages around Lake Iliamna and to the west.

Mike was a tinkerer and built a hydraulic ski-trail groomer. As a teen, Ben dragged it behind a snowmachine on the lake where they lived.

"My whole life has been working on planes, working on snowmachines," Kellie said. "I think out of all of it, that has been the most useful thing, that Bush mentality."

But Kellie also came out of a remarkable crop of teens in Nikiski.

His former English teacher, Rob Ernst, said the group included kids who went to Stanford University and his own daughter, Kellie's friend Annaleah Ernst, who graduated from Harvard University last year and now is doing secret work at Amazon's robotics subsidiary.

Kellie's father guided him to go to a school he could afford. He chose the University of Alaska Fairbanks over more famous names, earning a mechanical engineering degree, mostly with money earned in the family aviation business.

For graduate school, Kellie studied heat transfer and fluid dynamics at Ohio State University, where scholarships and work as a teaching assistant paid the bills.

In his first year there, Mike became ill. He told his son to stay at school because the illness wasn't serious. But within months, he neared the end, with brain cancer.

Ben managed to stay on track academically through that winter's ordeal.

"He had told me education is the most important thing," he said.

When he graduated, Kellie sent out hundreds of online job applications. He had a few leads when he received a call from a SpaceX recruiter.

Over the next few days, he saw how fast the company could make decisions — a  key part of its success out-innovating the established space industry.

His interview happened an hour after the first contact. Engineers on the other end of a call asked a series of oddball questions. Why does condensation bead up at the top of a motorcycle's windshield?

Kellie later learned he got the job because he improvised answers on the spot. He wasn't afraid to think on his feet. And also because in school he had led a team to build a simplified wind turbine for rural Alaska locations — he knew how to be creative and make unusual things.

He got the job over a weekend and soon was on site, at the launch pad. On the first morning of work he was handed schematics for a system he was supposed to build and at a meeting that afternoon was asked to give a progress report.

Two months later, Kellie was hiring engineers himself. That was when he learned how he got the job over students with higher academic qualifications. He asked academic hotshots strange questions like he had been asked, and they froze because they didn't know the right answer.

Kellie said working at SpaceX required fast decisions, creative solutions and the confidence to try to make things work that had never been made before. He likened it to fixing a broken snowmachine in the field with whatever you have on you, far from home.

But after two years, he wanted to stop the high-paced, all-hours work. He became obsessed with getting home to Alaska.

"I just love the immediacy of the whole place, the nearness and the reality of it," he said.

In 2015, he founded K2 Dronotics with his brother, Nick. The business provides remote inspection and mapping capabilities to industrial clients in rural Alaska. The brothers use drones to perform tasks that formerly required helicopters.

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But the Kellies have bigger ambitions. Ben imagines carrying cargo from rural hubs to remote villages with drones. Unmanned vehicles would be safer and cheaper than small planes and could fly in bad weather.

Before that can happen, the brothers will need to make a technology leap, with a fully autonomous drone capable of long flights with significant payloads. And a leap in regulation. Currently, unmanned vehicles must stay within an operator's sight.

They seem like a good bet to pull it off.

To me, Ben Kellie's story demonstrates the value of education, especially high-quality, low-tuition education at the University of Alaska.

And it also shows the educational value of the open, unstructured outdoors. Minds can learn more about the real world in Alaska's wild than in a computer or classroom.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.