THE ROCKETEERS: U of L Speed School students build missiles for fun
By: Travis K. Kircher
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- For decades, Sackett Hall has been the point of origin for countless zany and unique creations. Nestled on the University of Louisville Speed School campus, next to Eastern Parkway and the infamous "low clearance" 3rd Street overpass (where countless box trucks go to die), it serves as the training ground for up-and-coming mechanical engineers, hoping to sharpen their design skills before they go pro.
Posters litter the bulletin boards in its hallways, showing off some of the mechanical marvels that Speed School students have designed, built and tested (some with mixed results), including a "racecar" built from scratch.
But on this frigid January afternoon, a handful of students and their professors have gathered in the Sackett Hall laboratory to pay homage to one of the latest creations to spring from the minds (and hands) of the mathematically gifted. It's massive, unbelievably tall, very sleek -- and its series of jagged fins and the pinpoint-sharp tip at its pinnacle make it instantly clear to any observers that it is most definitely not a racecar.
"It looks like it belongs hanging on the wing of an F-16, or something!" exclaims Dr. Glen Prater, head of the mechanical engineering department.
The first word that comes to mind is "missile" -- but this 11'-4" tall, 43-lb. sky vehicle isn't used for military purposes. It's a science experiment. And its designers prefer to use the term "rocket."
There's a certain giddiness as the various members of the U of L Rocket Team show off their "baby." The group is all smiles, from Nick Greco, the team captain, to members Kyle Hord, Kara Leeds, Dhwani Shah, Nathan Armentrout and Zack Weber -- and for good reason. The team garnered fifth place out of 42 teams in their first national rocket competition last year -- and this year, they believe they've got a shot at being Number One.
"It would be so neat if we could launch it back here in the parking lot of Sackett Hall," Dr. Prater sighs wistfully, admiring the red-and-black finish. "I would love that!"
"Well, if you want to deal with the authorities…" says Greco, laughing.
Space Cadets Without a Home
According to Nick Greco, the team's captain, the U of L Rocket Team was the inevitable grassroots result of aerospace enthusiasts coming together at a school that doesn't offer "rocket science" as an elective.
"As you know, we have several majors here at Speed School, but aeronautics and aerospace really isn't one of them," Greco said. "All of us had that common interest, and we said, 'Why don't we have an outlet for that?'"
Greco found that outlet last year, the same way so many other tech-savvy children of the 21st century do: through a Google search. That's how he discovered NASA's University Student Launch Initiative (USLI), a competition that -- according to its Web site -- "challenges university-level students to design, build and launch a reusable rocket with a scientific or engineering payload to one mile above ground level, or AGL."
Greco's interest was piqued and he quickly issued a clarion call -- via the Speed School LISTSERV -- for like-minded space geeks who might want to form a team, build a rocket and cinch the prize. Four others answered the challenge, and thus the team was born.
Shah, who discovered the team just this year, said it was something he immediately wanted to be a part of. "I did bottle rockets in middle school and high school," he said, "so I was mostly interested in rocketry stuff. And I just found out that there's a U of L rocket team this year, so I was like, 'Huh! Let me see if I can go to a meeting!'"
As a student who majors in computer science, rather than mechanical engineering, Shah said he was quickly able to settle into his role as someone who assists with the rocket's guidance software.
Baby steps to the launch pad
But 11-foot, 43-lb. rockets aren't built overnight -- or even in a week. In 2011, these armchair space cadets were just starting out, and although they knew the goal: to build a rocket that will soar to exactly one mile above ground level -- no more or less than 5,280 feet -- they knew they would have to hit the drawing board (or rather, the computer screen) to make it happen.
"So we actually went out to Shawnee Park with Estes small kits, and we kind of had mini-competitions between us to see who could make the best mini-model of it," Greco said.
Next came the half-scale rockets, which Hord says were designed via special software, including SolidWorks and two rocket design and testing software packages freely available on the Internet: OpenRocket and RockSim.
"Once we got in the shop, we knew exactly what to do," Hord said. "We knew certain parts would fit if we cut everything properly. We're kind of doing it the new school way of engineering: instead of drawing it on a piece of paper, we do it all on the computer – and that allows us a very high degree of accuracy."
Knowing exactly what to do was one thing -- but having the money and resources to actually do it was something else entirely. In 2011, the team had the knowledge and they expertise. They just didn't have the cash. And no one seemed interested in helping.
"When we told everybody we were putting together a rocket team, everybody kind of said, 'Yeah, so what? Go away.'" Hord said. "That was with everybody...any corporation we went to, any individual we asked for money, it was just like, 'Uh, that's not going to happen.'"
The team was able to secure a grant from the NASA Kentucky Space Grant Consortium, but the grant also required that they raise $5,000 on their own. The dean of Speed School agreed to put up $3,500, but that still left $1,500 to go. That's when the team decided to spread out and ask individual departments for funding.
"I'm a mechanical engineer," Hord said. "I went to go talk to my department head, Dr. Prater, and he just simply asked, 'How much?' I said, '$1,500.' And he just laughed at me."
Hord said he was crestfallen, convinced that Prater was about to turn them down. But it turned out that wasn't the case. To Hord's surprise, Prater smiled and said, "Sure. Why not?"
"It turns out he had been secretly following us the entire time," Hord said. "He was very proud of the team."
Dr. Prater said his decision was a no-brainer.
"They didn't need much faculty help in terms of doing the design," he said. "Their big need was cash. And...once I learned something about the program, once I realized it was sponsored by NASA, once I realized the caliber of the universities that were competing, I realized it was something we wanted to be involved in. And that cinched it for me at least."
And the team says they understand the importance of getting the most for their buck. In one case, when $600 of electronics from their rocket got stuck 50 feet up in a tree (the parachute got caught in a limb) they spent the entire afternoon fighting to get it down.
"One of our members...was actually a skilled archer, so we went and bought a bow and arrow from Walmart and a fishing rod and we tied the line onto the arrow and he actually shot it through the parachute and we pulled it down," Greco said. "There's some crazy stuff."
Crash (and burn)
Armed with the necessary cash and ammonium perchlorate (the solid propellant that would fuel the model), the team set about actually building the rocket that would fly in the competition. Most of the construction took place at LVL-1 Hackerspace, a community shop of sorts at the corner of E. Broadway and S. Shelby St. The rocket was a mishmash of electronics (to record telemetry and scientific measurements such as temperature, altitude and humidity), wood and a lot of epoxy (to hold the fins in place.)
And as the team would soon discover, not every launch is a success. In fact, some have a tendency to put everyone involved on edge -- especially when the parachute fails to deploy on a half-scale model, and the rocket becomes a 10-lb. missile hurtling back toward the launch pad near the speed of sound.
"That's really nerve wracking, because you can't see it," Greco laughed nervously. "Supposedly if you can't hear it, that's bad, because that means it's right over your head. They always say if you can hear the whistling, you're safe."
There are nervous giggles and knowing glances exchanged among the team members when they recall some of their crash-and-burn incidents.
Hord recalls the maiden flight of their 2011 competition rocket at Purdue University -- a flight when the main parachute failed.
"These launches -- they have air horns," he said. "When the air horns go off, it means watch out, something went wrong. Air horns start going off. The rocket smashed into the ground – probably 40 feet from the crowd."
"At about 90 feet per second!" another team member said.
"So about – what is that? That's about 60 miles per hour," Hord said. "It hits the ground. It just makes the most heart-wrenching, stomach-turning 'THUD' you have ever heard."
"Dust was flying everywhere," Leeds offered.
"All the fins broke off," Hord continued. "Everything broke. So we ended up digging up the pieces, taking it to the hotel, buying up all the epoxy the local Lowe's had to offer. And we glued the entire thing back together."
"We bought every single canister that Lowe's and Walmart had," Greco added.
The team pulled an all-nighter at the hotel, getting the rocket ready for its flight the next day. When that flight produced a similar result -- once again knocking off the fins -- the team realized they were in big trouble. They only had a couple of hours to repair the fins and launch the rocket, or they would be disqualified from the competition. That's when, Hord says, he prepared what he called his "farewell speech."
"I think it went something along the lines of, 'I've had a really good time this year, guys. Sorry it didn't work out. This walk back is gonna suck,'" Hord said.
Worse, he said the team had to endure the "walk of shame" back to the launch pad, enduring the disappointed glares of their competitors as they carried the damaged rocket. At the same time, he said, many appeared to be overly optimistic in an attempt to offer support.
"You're always told, 'Oh, it's going to be easy to fix. You can fix that!'" he said. "And you're looking at it, and it's in 20 pieces, and it's just like, 'No. I can't fix that.'"
But with the encouragement of their team mentor, the group managed to reattach the fins in less than two hours -- something that took all night to do before. In a fit of desperation, they were able to launch the rocket just before their launch window ended.
"There was still glue dripping off of it when we put it on the launch pad," Greco laughs.
"By that point, all of the batteries in our science bay had died," Hord said. "The batteries in our avionics bay died, so this thing was flying completely blind, in a way."
It landed safely, but a "blind" launch isn't a "successful" launch, according to NASA. They needed one successful launch before they would be allowed to take part in the USLI competition that was coming up in two weeks in Huntsville, Ala. So the following weekend, the team tried again from a launch field in Manchester, Tenn.
The launch was successful. The only problem was, they thought they might never get it back.
"It drifted as far as the eye can see," Hord said. "Our electronics lost signal of it. So we ran to our cars – almost like storm chasers – just running after this thing, flying down the country roads, but we still lost it."
Eight hours later -- just as they were about to give up -- the team struck gold.
"We eventually found it four miles away in a herd of cattle," Hord said. "It was just sitting there beeping out everything."
Despite these "failures" the team's diligence was rewarded. One week later, in Huntsville, Ala., they not only placed 5th among 42 teams at the national USLI competition, they also won the "Rookie Team of the Year" award.
These days, no one laughs at the U of L Rocket Team anymore. In fact, they're somewhat in demand.
Leeds says she often takes the rocket on tour, showing it to awe-struck middle school students.
"People are usually really shocked about the size of it," she said. "Especially little kids, because you'll have a tiny little kid and he'll see that it's three times as big as him and he can't believe it. I love it when we go to schools and the kids already know something about space history and they'll have a million different questions and they'll ask you about the physics of outer space and stuff."
For Armentrout, it's not the children, but the adults, who are the most exciting to talk to. "The conversations I love having most about this rocket is talking to the older folks who've done rocketry since the 50s or 60s with Estes kits," he said. "They're really fun to talk to and they tell you about all their experiences...Kids faces. Adults faces. Everyone is just really happy to see this rocket."
Still, the sight of several young people carrying an 11-foot rocket is bound to raise some eyebrows -- especially when the rocket's red and black colors are seen at the University of Kentucky, where the NASA Kentucky Space Grand Consortium is located.
"We actually had to carry this halfway across the UK campus with our U of L logo on it and everything," Greco laughed. "So people are seeing a giant 11-foot-tall rocket with U of L branding on it. It was just – I think – a shocker for a lot of people."
"Yeah, one guy asked if he should be worried," Leeds laughed.
But it's a new year -- and the team is already working on a new rocket for the next USLI competition. At the time of the writing, the design phase is already completed and a half-scale model has been built. This one will be made of fiberglass. It will be smaller, cheaper, more efficient. And one thing's for certain: there will be NO epoxy.
And this year, the team says they plan to win FIRST place.
But regardless of the outcome, they'll still be launching rockets. Because as Greco says, it's what they have to do.
"There's nothing like it: seeing eight months of work, burning $360 of propellant in 3.3 seconds and watching it go up out of sight with a 200-foot plume of smoke following it – and knowing that your electronics guy is really hoping your fins hold up and your recovery guy is hoping it gets to the top – to apogee – so his parachute can at least come out. Oh man, it's exciting."
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