About two years ago, three University of Cincinnati aerospace engineering students launched an idea: To design, manufacture parts for, construct and blast off a rocket they’d build from scratch.
The trio -- Roger Rovekamp, Greg Workman and Justin Fisher – initiated the idea while they were all working together on “co-op” in Munich, Germany. (“Co-op” refers to cooperative education. The practice requires students to alternate academic quarters with paid, professional work related to their major. Co-op gives UC students the chance to work and live around the globe.) Working abroad had been rewarding and challenging, and they wanted to set themselves a new hurdle.
So, with a little help from their friends, other students, faculty members, industry sponsors and NASA, they formed their own rocket team. The original group of three students grew to 15 at UC and about 30 at Casper College in Wyoming as well as students in Wyoming’s Natrona County School District.
And at last, the project Rovekamp, Workman and Fisher dreamed up while abroad is about to launch from Wallops Island off the coast of Virginia to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. The window for their launch is July 14 through July 16, weather permitting.
From long-ago start to imminent finish, the project has certainly given the UC College of Engineering students many of the looked-for challenges they sought: Valuable nuts-and-bolts lessons in computer-aided design, structures, electronics and materials as well as team-building, negotiation and even financing and marketing. For instance, the support they’ve had to seek out and win in terms of expertise, hardware donations and financial aid is evidenced by the “sponsor identification” logos prominently pasted on their bright red, 12-foot-long Pathfinder rocket (which will extend to about 20 feet in length once the motor is attached during a pre-launch assembly). For all the world, it looks like the stock car of rockets, a virtual rocket billboard.
That’s just fine by these students who, more than anything, just want to see their creation get off the ground. “The best part is seeing it all come together,” said 3rd-year aerospace student Justin Templeton, 20, of Hilliard, Ohio. He added, “It finally looks like a rocket.”
Fellow student Dan Pettis, 24, a second-year student in Arts & Sciences, who handled the rocket’s octopus electronics, agreed, admitting to a lot of frustration along the way. “For a long time,” stated Pettis, “the whole thing looked more like a bomb than a rocket… The gremlins are always getting you. I’d even decided that butt splices(the plastic housing for a hub of electronic wiring) are evil. But at last, I’m seeing a rocket.”
Rovekamp, 24, originally of Mason, Ohio, and now living and working in Houston, added, “In Germany, we’d begun by saying how cool it would be to build a rocket. It seemed like a really good idea at the time… and it has been. But, it’s been a lot more work than I thought it would be. It’s a good feeling that the rocket is finally going up."
He went on, "We’ve designed a smaller rocket than… originally planned. We…found that building the motor would’ve put us in over our heads, and that’s when…we got another school involved [Casper College in Wyoming which, in turn, recruited high schoolers] to build the motor. We’ve made trade-offs along the way, and it’s been hard, difficult and challenging… and it’s been worth it.”
The entire group ranges from the 9th-grade-level to graduate-level students, and all have contributed in terms of manufacturing the rocket body and motor parts; building and testing the rocket structure, its electronic components and data-acquisition system, or “payload.”
The payload refers to the purpose for which a rocket is launched, whether that be to carry something into space for commercial or scientific reasons or for the purposes of conducting a scientific experiment. In this case, the students’ payload is a “Rocket Cam” mounted on the craft to monitor and send back real-time footage of the rocket’s performance as well as a test of the rocket’s retrieval system once their Pathfinder splashes down via parachute in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia.
To get to that splash-down point, Rovekamp and his fellow students have had to prove themselves not only as scientists but as salesmen. He and his original partners had to make a proposal to both UC and NASA: If NASA would cover both the launch and the launch liability costs and if UC would cover the materials, the testing and the transportation costs, the students would do the rest, covering all other expenses via industry assistance.
Their proposal was accepted, and, indeed, has become the seed project for a new NASA program now called the Student Launch Initiative which is now partnering with other universities to allow students to build their own rockets from scratch.
Libby West, a NASA project manager, explained that this new initiative is part of educational outreach by NASA, with the goal of inspiring the next generation of explorers. She added, “This project has been great in that respect. I know it’s gone slower than the students had originally hoped, but they’ve kept going down the right path, and their payoff is coming.”
The students more than agree. In UC’s Engineering Machine Shop one day, they had the 130-pound rocket body up on supports and were getting ready to remove the brace at the rocket’s cone. They were going to see how much the rocket bent when the support was removed. It was a crucial test because if the aluminum-bodied rocket bent too much, that meant it likely wouldn’t withstand the rigors of a launch, flight and splash down. If it didn’t bend enough, that meant the body didn’t have the required flexibility. It was a test where success would be marked by less than half an inch.
Second-year aerospace master’s student Greg Workman, 23, who oversaw the rocket’s structural construction, half-joked, “I’ll either be crying or laughing when this test is done.” Rovekamp chimed in, “The worst thing that could happen is if the rocket bends, and then, stays bent without going back to proper form.”
Results of that day were well worth the anxiety: The rocket bent an acceptable 2/10ths of an inch. Not that the students were satisfied with just one test. They did it again and then again. Nor was this their last test. The coming weeks brought vibration tests as well as testing of the electronics.
After launch day, most of the students want to maintain their pace in space-related projects. For instance, Rovekamp is working for Lockheed Martin Space Operations. Even Templeton, who has lamented the necessity of writing this project’s procedures – the meticulous documentation to record the placement of each screw and wire so that the rocket is assembled without error – still wants to eventually pursue a career in the space industry.
Other UC students working on the project have included Keith Sawmiller, Adam Gerlach, Tom Sullivan, Ben Noble, Kate Grendell, Phil Lux, Shane Heilman, Adam Saunders, Justin Register and Eric Riedl.
UC funding for the project has come from the Undergraduate Funding Board and College of Engineering and its aerospace department. UC faculty who have advised the students include Doug Hurd and Dave Breheim, Engineering Machine Shop technicians; Trevor Williams, professor of aerospace engineering; Altan Ferendeci, professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science; Shaaban Abdallah, professor of aerospace engineering; and San-Mou Jeng, professor of aerospace engineering. Also contributing is John Wickman, founder, Wickman Spacecraft & Propulsion Company.
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