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The college essay. It’s a place for teenagers to lay it all on the line, to share passions, achievements, and goals for the future, in 500 words or less. While some college hopefuls may have trouble summarizing themselves in just a few paragraphs, others can sum up their goals in a single sentence. For Matt Shea ’03, it was the latter. When he applied to WPI back in 1999, the content of his essay was simple:
He wanted to send something into space.
“Working for a company that built space-bound vehicles, working on anything that goes into space,” he recalls. “Anything like that; I just wanted to be a part of it.”
And now, the hopes Shea wrote about in his application essay over 20 years ago have become reality. After being pitched an idea for a company by longtime friend Ryan McDevitt ’03, the two joined forces in 2017 to start Benchmark Space Systems, which builds propulsion systems for satellites. Just a few years after the company’s inception, three satellites that blasted off in SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in June 2021 included propulsion systems created by Benchmark.
Talk about one giant leap for mankind.
“Oh, we could build this.”
Getting a satellite into space is one thing. But those satellites also need to be able to move and get around. That’s where Benchmark comes in. The company builds propulsion systems for satellites that range in size from those you can hold in the palm of your hand to some that are as big as a refrigerator.
For a company dealing with tasks and creating solutions simultaneously large in scope and intricate in detail, its origin story is surprisingly simple: a meal with a friend.
While finishing his PhD in micro-propulsion at the University of Vermont (UVM), McDevitt headed down to Florida to visit Shea, who was working as a product engineer at Draper Labs. They began discussing some of the technology that would be coming out of McDevitt’s PhD program, and after a quick sketch and some calculations from Shea, they experienced a straightforward revelation: “Oh, we could build this.”
That set their very own extraterrestrial Field of Dreams into motion. Not only could they build it, but if successful, their product would be cheaper than anything on the market at the time. The technology and enthusiasm were there; it was just a matter of making their plans a reality.
“That was the genesis of it,” McDevitt explains. “We had some more conversations and it was organic, the way things came about. I convinced [Shea] to come work with me to get things started … once he knew it was possible, I think it was hard for him not to do it.”
Shea agrees with a laugh, adding, “He came in at the right moment in time. It was a good idea, and he convinced me.”
There’s an easy rapport between McDevitt and Shea (who serve as co-founders and CEO and COO of Benchmark, respectively), one that’s clearly been cemented over decades of friendship built on sharing a passion for space and a residence hall.
“We both lived in Institute Hall, and were in the same orientation group,” McDevitt says. “It was a great opportunity for us to get to know each other. We’ve been close since day one, lived together sophomore year, hung out all throughout college.”
The two majored in mechanical engineering with a concentration in aerospace engineering (“Aerospace wasn’t added as a major until the year after we left,” Shea laments with a laugh), and also shared the same mentor during their time at WPI, John Blandino, associate professor of aerospace engineering.
Working on his Major Qualifying Project with Blandino, Shea contributed to a piece of test apparatus for the LISA Pathfinder mission. “It was his coaching that opened my mind to the possibility of working on this,” he explains. “Just being associated with the project played a big part in what I thought was achievable in the future.”
McDevitt’s experience with the professor was twofold: He’d worked on a thruster project with Blandino the summer between his junior and senior years, producing a paper that not only landed them a slot at a grand propulsion conference, but helped McDevitt get into UVM. Blandino also taught what ended up being McDevitt’s favorite class in college, one focused on space systems. The class proved so influential that when McDevitt was lecturing at UVM as he wrapped up his PhD, he modeled his space systems class on the one he’d taken from Blandino back in 2003.
“You can draw a direct line from the work I did with him to what we have now,” McDevitt says. “He may not even realize how much impact he had on Benchmark’s becoming a company. It really, truly wouldn’t exist without the work and support he gave us.”
A Rollercoaster of Emotions
Building a company from scratch and keeping things running smoothly are impressive achievements in and of themselves. Now, McDevitt and Shea have one more to add to the list: “flight heritage,” or proof that a product can work in space.
Contributing their propulsion systems to the SpaceX mission gave Benchmark the chance to achieve exactly that. Despite the anxieties that come with sending work into space for the first time—as well as an initial launch date in January 2021 that got pushed back until June—McDevitt and Shea were feeling confident that this time the launch would occur, taking their technology into space with it.
“We built these systems and shipped them back in 2020,” says McDevitt, who hosted their launch party at the company’s headquarters in Vermont. “We’d been waiting a long time, and we were excited to finally be able to get them up there.”
While McDevitt held down the fort at Benchmark, Shea was at the launch facility in Florida, where the atmosphere was buzzing with energy, including a tourist sightseeing helicopter that Shea noticed hovering almost directly overhead. The excitement was palpable—in mere seconds, their work was finally going to be sent into space.
Or so they thought.
“The countdown’s going, cameras are ready, we’re watching. It goes down to 11 seconds, and then it just stops,” Shea says. He explains that the crew used the phrase “The range has been fouled” as the reason for the stoppage, meaning that something came into the safety space around the launch rocket by sea, land, or air.
Suddenly, the helicopter from earlier made a lot more sense to them.
“As soon as we heard the news on the broadcast, that helicopter above us totally booked it out of there,” Shea remembers with a laugh, and while they never knew for sure whether the helicopter was the culprit of the delayed launch, it made for an entertaining story amidst the disappointment felt by the Benchmark crew as they were forced to postpone their celebrations once again.
A day later, on June 30, they finally saw three of Benchmark’s propulsion systems enter space. “It was spectacular,” Shea says. “We’ve all seen launch videos on YouTube, but seeing it in person—with your tech on it—was totally different.”
“They’re up there and safe, everything’s working and looking good,” McDevitt adds. “It’s exciting … we couldn’t have asked for better.”
The Final Next Frontier
The camaraderie and support McDevitt and Shea show isn’t limited to each other. They’ve been working hard to ensure the right people are in place to help them continue growing the company that began as nothing more than a visit to catch up with a friend.
While they still love being able to explore the technology surrounding their work (“Deep down, we’re still engineers, so it’s fun to take a dive into new data, new rocket stuff. It’s really, really cool,” Shea says.), they both agree that their favorite parts of their jobs involve witnessing the success of those with whom they work.
“This is a challenging environment,” McDevitt says, “and having people come in at all stages of their careers and watching them learn, grow, and put their stamp on what we do and help guide the company in different ways, that’s the best. We’re hearing different voices, learning from each other—that’s what I get most excited about.”
McDevitt, Shea, and their team are in a prime position to keep things going and build upon what they’ve already achieved, with goals that include expanding their workforce, their footprint within the Department of Defense, and what they offer customers.
“We want to be able to help earlier in the process,” McDevitt says, explaining that they’re aiming to help those interested in using their technology think about mission planning, how to source different components, and how to operate in space, as opposed to simply sending along their hardware and moving on. “Our goal is to be a more full-service partner for them.”
While they’ve got plans about where they hope to take Benchmark next, one of the things they both took away from their time at WPI was the notion of flexibility and the willingness to pivot as needed—to know that while it’s good to have an idea of where you want to go, you don’t have to know exactly how everything is going to play out in the end.
“You just don’t,” McDevitt says. “There are so many opportunities, especially coming out of a place like WPI. My life took all sorts of twists and turns. I didn’t have a traditional career path in engineering, and that’s fine. I think I’m better for it.”
Shea agrees, citing the fact that after he graduated, his first job was as a technician, not an engineer, something that had him lamenting why he went to college in the first place. “As it turned out, it was one of the greatest jobs I could have taken. What I learned has continued to play an important role in the rest of my career.”
That’s not all that’s followed them from their time at WPI—there’s also the time management skills. “The speed at which everything happens at WPI has had a big impact on how I process and complete my work, and how I see the potential for what can happen in a short amount of time,” McDevitt explains.
And the project work experiences: “Problem statements, literature reviews, research, coming up with a hypothesis and testing it out … everything we did during IQP and MQP, we do at work every day,” Shea says.
“So much of Benchmark is formed by our different experiences,” McDevitt says. “It’s not lost on us that all of this, where we are today, is due to the seeds that were planted 20 years ago.”