Minnesotan becomes rocket scientist, helps launch satellites into Earth's orbit

Bryce Schaefer, an aerospace engineer working with Virgin Orbit, is focused on delivering payloads of satellites into space from mobile launch sites nearly anywhere in the world.

Bryce Schaefer, of Moorhead, at the controls on board Virgin Orbit flight called Cosmic Girl.jpg
Bryce Schaefer at the controls on board Virgin Orbit flight called Cosmic Girl.
Special to The Forum

MOORHEAD — Some day, a 2½ year trip to Mars may be a fairly common option for humans. Those with deep pockets can already tour the edge of space if they can afford the $250,000 ticket price.

But for now, Bryce Schaefer, an aerospace engineer working with Virgin Orbit, is focused on delivering payloads of satellites into space from mobile launch sites nearly anywhere in the world.

Originally from Moorhead, Schaefer, 32, has been designing rockets like LauncherOne, capable of being attached to two-story Boeing 747 aircraft, which propels payloads into orbit around the Earth. Many of the small satellites are used to monitor earth’s atmosphere, water levels, fishing activity, and more.

Schaefer graduated from Moorhead High School in 2008, then began studying aerospace engineering first at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and later as a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Since 2020, Schaefer has flown five LauncherOne missions.


Virgin Orbit flight with rocket attached to wing.jpg
Virgin Orbit flight with rocket attached to wing.
Special to The Forum

The launch begins with Cosmic Girl, the call sign for the Boeing 747 aircraft, which was a commercial airplane for 16 years before being refitted into a flying control room operated by two pilots and two flight engineers for Virgin Orbit missions.

While on earth, Cosmic Girl is fitted to hold a rocket like LauncherOne on the wing. The rocket is filled with liquid cryogenic oxygen and RP-1, or rocket grade kerosene.

Such a rocket isn’t allowed to fly over populated areas, so they take off over the ocean, usually from California or the United Kingdom.

“It takes about an hour for us to get everything ready,” Schaefer said.

Once in the air, the four people on board monitor the aircraft for problems. The pilots guide Cosmic Girl to a drop point, where they fly in a maneuver called a “racetrack,” or one loop. Then, the pilots go full throttle, pitch the nose up to 33 degrees, gaining altitude.

“When we hit a certain altitude, air speed and pitch of the plane, we release the rocket from the wing. It falls away for five seconds and ignites, then you want to let it do its thing and fly its way into orbit,” Schaefer said.

The payloads, which can be anywhere from one to a dozen satellites, are at the front end of LauncherOne, inside a circular nose cone that protects the payload.

“Our rocket is a two-stage vehicle, with a first- and second-stage engine. When the first stage runs out of fuel it separates from the rocket, and then the second ignites and takes the rocket into orbit. Once it gets there, the rocket will dispense the payloads,” Schaefer said.


A spring mechanism shoots the satellites out at specific spots and they go their separate ways, Schaefer said.

Then, Cosmic Girl returns to earth and lands like a normal jet.

“It’s rinse and repeat after that,” Schaefer said.

The missions have sparked an optimistic look toward the future developments of humans in space. In the next decade or so, people will be walking on the moon, he said.

“I don’t want to say if we will permanently live on Mars, but I think it’s in the cards. There is obviously a ton of problem solving that goes into that, and making sure we do what is smart for humanity,” Schaefer said.

Pioneering companies like Virgin Galactic, or the company he works for, Virgin Orbit, are striving to make trips to the edge of space and further for humans an affordable and common goal.

“I think we will see a large increase in space travel and who goes into space for their daily job or for the sake of tourism," Schaefer said. "These things start out expensive, but if you don’t do the work to try and make it accessible, then it never will be accessible."

Traveling to outer space, the moon, the planet Mars, were once all ideas most people could only dream of, or read about in science fiction movies.


“But I think we’re changing our stance these days to building things in a way that is inclusive and not limited to ultra-rich people having a vacation up in space,” Schaefer said.

Bryce Schaefer, waving, as he descends Cosmic Girl.jpg
Bryce Schaefer, waving, as he descends Cosmic Girl.
Special to The Forum

As a rocket scientist, Schaefer makes launching satellites into orbit around the earth sound like an easy task. But it’s not. The work he and others have put into making the rockets work are all covered with aerospace grade aluminum or titanium.

The launches are not without danger, but risks are a part of a pioneer’s life.

His last flight, which launched from the United Kingdom, was unsuccessful due a problem during the second stage burn.

“You get in your car and you take on a risk. Our flights are obviously more risky in certain ways, but it’s one of those things you do everything in your power to make it as safe as it can be,” Schaefer said.

In comparison to the Apollo missions, no one knew if the astronauts would come back okay, he said. "It's the name of the game. You can never guarantee the safety of people throughout life and that’s just the way things go."

Schaefer is the only one in his family working to bring outer space a little closer to mankind. His parents own and operate a petroleum equipment company in Fargo. His sister is a nurse educator and his brother is a computer scientist working on building the next supersonic passenger jet.

When asked if he would like to go to Mars one day, Schaefer didn’t hesitate with an answer.


“Yeah, why not," he said.

While the future of space travel is anyone's best guess, Schaefer believes people will visit the moon in the five to 10 years, and a venture to Mars will happen in our lifetime. "There are a lot of really exciting things going on," he said. "It’s a romantic time period for people in the space industry."

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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