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To Boldly Go

From an early age, math piqued the interests of Max Ballenger ’05. Growing up, he spent his free time building model rockets, cars and airplanes — and thinking about space.

“I can’t remember a time in my life in which I wasn’t at least a little inspired by space exploration,” said Ballenger. “I always loved to read and ate up many science fiction novels.”

Now, Ballenger lives his dream at Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, commonly known as SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer and private space transport services company headquartered in Hawthorne, California.

Ballenger works as the lead sensors development engineer for the Avionics Department, where he helps design, build and test electronic devices that help fly SpaceX’s reusable rockets and spacecraft.

His team plays a critical role, as SpaceX was founded with the goal of developing reusable space transportation technologies to dramatically reduce the cost of access to space — with the ultimate goal of colonizing Mars.

SpaceX has developed the Falcon family of reusable launch vehicles and Dragon spacecraft, which in February was flown into orbit by the Falcon 9 rocket and delivered cargo to the International Space Station. In March, the Falcon 9 carried a telecommunications satellite into space.

As a child, Ballenger spent a lot of his time working on computers.

“I liked putting them together and upgrading them, and I even had the patience to learn a little programming, at least when the purpose was to modify or create a game.”

Ballenger said his 13 years at Providence Day helped develop him into the innovator that he is today  — from kindergarten teachers accommodating his high reading level to Middle School teachers encouraging him to take more challenging math courses. Several family trips to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where he was able to interact with space-related items in a more hands-on way, also inspired him.

After PDS, he graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy. Ballenger then accepted a summer internship at Ad Astra Rocket, a rocket propulsion company dedicated to the development of advanced plasma rocket propulsion technology in Webster, Texas — three miles from Johnson Space Center.

He was later hired by Ad Astra where he engineered software and electronics for ground testing of a developmental engine.

“My employment at Ad Astra Rocket Company taught me that the skills I had could indeed be useful to a cutting-edge spaceflight engineering company,” said Ballenger.

Ballenger relocated to McGregor, Texas, to start his first job at the SpaceX rocket development facility. This is where large-scale testing takes place of the company’s advanced rockets and spacecraft before they are transported to their launch sites. There, Ballenger supported the company’s efforts to build control and measurement software systems necessary to conduct safe, efficient and comprehensive rocket testing.

In 2015, Ballenger transferred to his current role at the SpaceX headquarters, where he leads a team of engineers who focus on the navigation electronics the company uses to measure the location and orientation of vehicles in flight.

Ballenger’s current focus is on contributing to the flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which will carry humans into orbit for the first time from American soil since the retirement of the NASA space shuttle in 2011.

“It’s inspiring to be part of a company that’s working toward being the world’s most cost-effective and reliable provider of launch services,” said Ballenger.

He hopes his work will help pave the way for humans becoming a multi-planetary species, starting with the colonization of Mars.

In the meantime, Ballenger has been sharing his experiences and insights with PDS junior and fellow science enthusiast Vaibhav Pachella.

“We discussed how to approach the rest of his studies in preparation for a successful career in science or engineering,” said Ballenger.

“I was impressed to see that he was already familiar with technology that hardly existed when I graduated from Providence Day in 2005,” added Ballenger. “Hands-on experience is valued particularly highly by the organizations I’ve worked in and he will have a big leg up.”  

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