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'Rocket University' Rocketry Labs Hone Flight Skills
10.25.12
 
Rocket University rocket launch

Image above: A rocket launches during Rocket University activities. Image credit: NASA
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Rocket University teammates prepare to launch a rocket

Image above: Rocket University teammates prepare to launch their rocket. Image credit: NASA
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Engineers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida are gaining critical flight skills as they design, build and launch high-powered rockets at the spaceport's Rocket University. Additionally, "Rocket U" provides an opportunity to collaborate with other NASA centers such as Johnson Space Center in Houston, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

"A large portion of our engineering workforce was dedicated to manned space flight operations (during the Space Shuttle Program era)," said Kevin Vega, assistant chief engineer for the agency's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and the Rocket University rocketry lab lead. "Since CCP is a manned space flight systems program established and run out of Kennedy Space Center, we should be bringing to bear those skills required to analyze, evaluate and certify any system that decides to pursue that goal for NASA, the nation, or commercially."

In Rocket University, engineers from a variety of disciplines take part in small-scale labs to gain hands-on experience as they develop flight skills. In addition to the rocketry platform, "Rocket U" also offers similar engineering experience with balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles and a liquid engine test stand. Like Vega, Rocket U leads and students participate on a "non-interference" basis. In other words, their regular job takes precedence.

The Rocketry course began in spring 2012 with a series of three courses. The first, an introduction to high-powered rocketry, exposed the engineers to the rocket's appearance and operations. After building and launching a vehicle of their own, they moved on to the week-long Advanced Rocket Workshop presented at Kennedy by Marshall Space Flight Center Chief Engineer Pat Lampton.

"We tailored the class to rocketry, but essentially it answered, 'How do you size a solid rocket, or even a liquid rocket, system based around a certain payload? What are the flight dynamic properties and calculations involved?" Vega said.

Then it was time to begin applying this new knowledge. The group was divided into four small teams of five or six engineers. Each team was tasked with designing, building and flying its own rocket.

These are not the small, beginner rockets you might find in a hobby shop. Instead, they're high-powered rockets generating 300 to 900 pounds of thrust. The rocket components are off-the-shelf hardware, but were ordered by Vega according to each team's needs. Additionally, all four teams are designing their own flight computers from scratch, using commercially available flight computers as a reference.

As the hands-on phase of Rocket U began, Vega gave each team a set of requirements, and the teams went to work breaking these goals into smaller, more detailed objectives.

"I gave them a project plan with primary and secondary mission objectives, and an outline structure of how they needed to organize their team: who's doing what, how are you going to mitigate risk, what analysis are you going to do, and so forth," Vega said.

Gradually, the requirements are refined and the design is analyzed as each team's work passes through a series of official reviews. This sequence is a tailored version of the standard review process for launch vehicles.

Today, two of the four teams have completed the preliminary design review, with the remaining two close on their heels. After passing a critical design review and flight readiness review, the rockets will be ready to fly.

In addition to the challenge of designing and building a rocket, all four teams have an extra requirement to meet, something that sets each rocket apart from the others.

One rocket must reach transonic speed without exceeding 10,000 feet in altitude; that team designed a second-stage air-brake system as a solution. Another rocket must allow ground controllers the option to manually command separation events, overriding the flight computer's programmed sequence. During ascent, a streamer will release from the rocket to provide visual proof that the override worked.

The third vehicle will use 75 millimeter motors, larger than the standard 54 millimeter motors, to extend the stages' burn times and reduce the thrust on the first stage.

These three teams are relying on the off-the-shelf flight computers to guide the vehicles, with the newly designed flight computers serving as the payload. But the fourth team's added challenge is to use its own flight computer to fly the rocket. All four rockets are expected to fly by the end of November. But that's not the end of Rocket U. In the final phase of the program, the teams will join together to develop a supersized, three-stage system capable of flying to an altitude of 150,000 feet, potentially carrying a payload of a few experiments.

"Four different teams with four different ideas, all flying on these smaller-scale rockets, will then funnel into this large-scale rocket that will take us about a year to develop," Vega explained.

"They'll be able to bring all their lessons learned and ideas from that flight computer design for each one of those teams to create the one main flight computer on this bigger rocket."
 
 
Anna Heiney,
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center