STORY BY: Travis K. Kircher
PHOTOS BY: Austin Lassell
Member of the U of L Rocket Team
NOTE: The above video was produced by the U of L Rocket Team. It depicts the testing of one of their rockets, to the tune of David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Enjoy.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- When we last left our intrepid heroes, they had come up with an implausible idea, ignored the "doubting Thomases" who came their way, received funding from some surprising sources and showed the world -- or at least their school -- that they had the chutzpah to put their audacious plans into effect.
"Our heroes" are of course the members of the University of Louisville Rocket Team, who spontaneously came together in 2011 to pursue model rocketry by entering what amounted to an 11-foot, 43-lb. missile in NASA's University Student Launch Initiative (USLI) competition -- and won 5th place in the 2012 competition, to boot.
But it's a new year. With a new competition.
Now the team has some new members, a more efficient rocket -- and a much better prize to show for it.
And on Saturday, May 18, they were happy to pile into an empty classroom in U of L's Davidson Hall and tell me about it over hot dogs and burgers.
It's no surprise that a team that would score high in a national competition would raise some eyebrows -- and attract more members, who are all eager to be part of the action.
Members like Emily Robison, a sophomore, Zach Wright, a sophomore, and senior Gregg Blincoe. All of them shared one thing in common: a love of aviation.
"I've just always had an interest in space," said Blincoe. "I started following NASA very heavily when Curiosity [the Mars rover] landed on Mars. I had just gotten the excitement flowing through my veins a lot recently."
Blincoe says he met the team captain, Nick Greco, through a mutual friend and enjoyed being a part of the team immediately.
"Everyone seemed like a really cool group of guys!"
"And girls..." a team member volunteers, with a nod to Robison.
"And girls!" Blincoe says, as the team laughs. Robison smiles.
"Thanks!" she says, laughing along with them.
Robison says she plans to pursue a career in aeronautics and joining the U of L Rocket Team has helped her along that path.
"You can't compare this to the classroom," she says. "You learn so much more by getting your hands on, and actually physically doing things and applying what you've learned, or haven't learned."
"I started off wanting to become a pilot," he says. "When that kind of fell through, this was kind of the next best thing to do. Working with the design and learning how all the stuff works -- how to make it work and how to make your own -- it's really interesting."
Smaller, lighter, faster
With a new team -- the greenhorns combining with team veterans such as Nick Greco, Kara Leeds and Kyle Hord -- the group dug in to begin designing and manufacturing a new rocket to enter into NASA's 2013 USLI competition. This time, they planned to incorporate some lessons learned from 2012.
"Last year, the rocket was just a big, hulking 53-lb. object," says team captain Nick Greco. "I think we were all wrapped up in, you know, 'We're doing high-powered rocketry, so let's just make it as big as possible.' It proved to be kind of inefficient. So this year, we put a real focus on how we could make our design more efficient overall."
Greco says that meant building a rocket that was much smaller and much lighter. At 9'-3", their new rocket was almost two feet shorter than the one they entered into the 2012 competition. They were also able to shed roughly 20 lbs. from the old design, designing a rocket that weighed only 33 lbs.
Building a missile isn't cheap, so Greco says the team also had to raise funds -- but it wasn't as hard to come up with the money this year as it was the previous year, when the team was just getting "off the ground" so to speak. During the team's first year, 70 percent of the budget came from the team members' own pockets. ("I hated seeing members having to pay to do stuff they liked to do," Greco states.)
This year, he says they were able to raise roughly $30,000 in money and resources from companies such as Samtec and O'Neal Steel. At the same time, LVL-1 Hackerspace, a laboratory here in town, provided them with the space and tools needed to build the rocket, while partners such as the Louisville Science Center gave them the opportunities to show off their rocket and speak with students -- an educational outreach requirement central to the USLI competition.
October Sky (or April Sky?)
In April, the team took their rocket on the road, piling into vehicles and heading south for the official USLI competition rocket launch scheduled to be held in Huntsville, Ala. on Saturday, April 20.
But the trip entailed more than just a rocket launch. Some of the team got to go on a tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center. One of them was Daniel Porter, a grad student.
"They actually had a nice construction facility where they could build rockets ring-by-ring," he said. "They had dry-welding where they could go around and weld each tube and stack another one on top of it. So you got to see all their nice expensive machinery and things you might get to work with if you were lucky enough to get hired by them."
Along the way the team was able to meet a few aviation giants, such as astronaut Charlie Precourt, who had flown on space shuttles Columbia, Atlantis and Discovery. They also heard from another figure they felt a close connection to: Homer Hickam, author of "Rocket Boys: A Memoir," the book that inspired the film "October Sky."
It's a movie the team hears a lot about, especially when they show their rocket off to the public.
"The first thing they say is, 'You guys are like October Sky! Have you ever seen that movie?'" laughs Greco. "And we're like, 'Yes. We've seen that movie several times.' So it's kind of cool because, when they say that, you can be like, 'You know that guy? We actually met him at one of our launches.'"
And the winner is...
But the team didn't drive all the way to Huntsville to eat cake, pose in Apollo capsule mock-ups or hang out in the hot tub (although they DID do all of that.) The team drove all the way to Huntsville to fly a rocket. And the launch went relatively smoothly.
But not without some nail-biting moments.
It started the night before, when the team displayed their rocket along with several others at a rocket fair at Marshall Space Flight Center.
"We had all of our systems on display, which is probably a mistake because a big crowd comes around and someone might actually grab something or play with something," Greco said.
And that's exactly what happened.
"It turned out that someone had cross-threaded one of our aluminum casings that we hold our CO2 system in," Greco said. "And we couldn't get the casing cap off. If we couldn't have fixed it, we wouldn't have been able to fly."
How crucial is the CO2 system? It's the system that sets off a burst of energy that pops off the nosecone of the rocket and deploys the parachute during flight, providing the rocket with a slow, stable (read: safe) descent. That's pretty crucial. Just ask Carlos Gonzalez, the junior who designed the system.
"The nose cone had to come out," he said. "If that did not work, then the rocket would pretty much go ballistic."
The next day was Saturday -- the day of the launch. The team had to get the part fixed, but in order to do that, they needed a special tap. Greco said he called home improvement stores such as Harbor Freight, Lowe's, Home Depot and Fastenal, but to no avail. Next up: machine shops, but they could only find one open on Saturdays, and they wanted to charge the team hundreds of dollars just to walk in the door.
But Greco says he struck gold when he remembered a friend with NASA connections.
"He got me and another guy visitor passes, and we got to go on base and actually fix it in the Redstone Arsenal machine shop, where NASA does their stuff," he said. "You know, we're in there running it on a lathe and you look to your right and there's a space shuttle nozzle just in the corner and different things like that. It was awesome."
Problem solved. And the launch went without a hitch. Way better than they expected. Way better than last year.
"When they start the countdown -- they always count down from five -- and as soon a they start that, I always feel like I'm about to hurl," Greco says.
But they had nothing to worry about. The CO2 system worked like a charm.
"We knew from our simulations that the rocket would take 16.9 seconds from the ground to where Carlos' system should have activated," Greco said.
Emily Robison was watching with a stopwatch from a different location and was in phone communication with the team.
"I was sitting there counting the seconds," she says. "And Carlos' event happened right on time."
"It was just like clockwork," Greco says. "It was awesome. She said '17' and we just saw the nosecone shoot out. When that happens, that's when all the stress leaves. If you get the parachute out, you're in good shape. If you don't, it's gonna be in a million pieces."
Greco said the rocket flew to an altitude of 4,817 feet, with a maximum speed of 353 mph, pulling 9Gs on the way up. It reached its maximum height in 17 seconds, when the parachute deployed. It landed .24 miles from the launch pad.
And on May 17, the team learned that they were awarded second place overall in the national competition.
Goodbyes and clear skies
What lies ahead for the U of L rocket team?
The team plans to push on, designing a new rocket for the 2014 competition. But they'll be doing it without Greco, the team captain and the one who started the whole thing.
"It's really sad," Greco said. "This was my creation two years ago, and I feel like it's become a huge part of my life. It's motivated me to do better in school and be an overall better leader."
And where is Greco going? Where else, but Marshall Space Flight Center, for an internship?
Does he have any parting words for the greenhorns?
"They probably tired of hearing my parting words," he said, to laughter. "I guess my main advice would just be that you really get what you put into it. This club has the potential to be something really life-changing...it's done that for me."
"If you just want to do things for your resume, or do things just to have the title of president or vice president, that's all you're ever gonna have: just the happiness you get from a title, and not the happiness you get from actually learning how to do something and being a master of an aspect of something in your life, no matter what it is."
The team has about 16 members now, but they say they could use 3-4 more. Any U of L students interested in signing on can contact the team via Facebook or Twitter.
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