A First Time for Everything
Student-built rockets are coming to the forefront with more and more emphasis on commercial space exploration and nationwide efforts to increase students' interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The University of North Dakota has now joined the ranks of universities embarking on student-built rocket projects.

Students and mentors standing in front of rocket

Students and mentors from the University of North Dakota stand in front of the rocket they built. Pictured (left to right) are mentors Tim Young, Pablo DeLeon and John Nordlie and students Matthew Voigt, Arjay Eve, Johnathan McClure and Will Swearson. Image Credit: Tim Young

For the past year, UND associate physics professor Tim Young has led a group of students from two North Dakota universities in the design and construction of a reusable rocket. The Student Rocket Initiative Project was funded, in part, by a grant through NASA and the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium.

"What I wanted to do was get students interested in rocketry," Young said. "I think it's the future, especially (space) tourism and hotels in space. People are going to have to get up there. ... I thought this would be the first step towards that, at least in our area.

"The program is designed to give students experience in designing rockets and designing payloads to go in the rockets, to kind of build a workforce of people that are knowledgeable of how all these systems work together."

The National Space Grant College and Fellowship Project contributes to the nation's science enterprise by funding research, education and public service projects through a national network of 52 university-based Space Grant consortia. The project directly supports the agency's goal of strengthening NASA's and the nation's future workforce.

Young, who teaches astrophysics, astronomy and nuclear physics at UND, said the experience allowed students to participate in a hands-on, problem-solving experiment unlike the more predictable experiments conducted in the classroom.

"The benefit for them personally is that they can accomplish these hands-on things that are outside the curriculum. ... Here's this chance to have this experience that is outside of the curriculum that ends up not being so strict and with proven methods. This was something that we didn't know exactly how it was going to go. In that sense, it was a lot more problem-solving and a different sort of education than they get from a traditional classroom experience. It was more hands-on and more imaginative and more creative, more engaging than any of the formal classroom stuff."

A group of about 25 students and other volunteers divided into teams, with each one assigned a different task. UND students worked on the rocket airframe and fincan, avionics, a mobile launch facility, the rocket engine design, and safety, while students from North Dakota State University worked on telemetry and launch systems.

"What we realized was that the groups had to work so intimately with each other because everything depended on each other," Young said. "We just had this real interdependence of different groups. It was a very interesting dynamic in terms of everyone working together to complete the whole thing. You couldn't just build your own piece and then bring it together and say here it is."

The first step was to build a mobile launch facility -- basically a radio tower with a rocket guide rail on it, Young said. Once the launch stand was complete, work began on the vehicle. One goal was to build a rocket that could launch larger payloads, so the diameter was set to one foot. The rocket body was designed to be modular so that sections can be added or taken away to vary the rocket's length.

Students bending over, working on a rocket lying in a horizontal bracket

To prepare for launch, students William Swearson and Arjay Eve, front, and their mentors secure the rocket motor and inspect the rocket recovery system. Image Credit: Tim Young

On its maiden launch, the North Dakota rocket measured 12-feet long and weighed 60 pounds. (In its final configuration it will measure 18-19 feet and weigh 140 pounds, with enough fuel to reach 25,000 feet.)

"I'd never launched a rocket over 6 pounds," Young said. "All of this was really new for me also. We had some experience with smaller rockets but never one this big."

The rocket was launched from a North Dakota farm on May 8, 2007. Young said they purposely launched the rocket to a low altitude so that they could still see the rocket and perform a visual inspection and analysis of its performance. The rocket reached 2,800 feet.

"It was kind of a nail-biting time," Young said. "The launch was the big test as to whether the design was right, whether the components were working, all the electronics and the motor.

"The rocket just went up perfect. The motor performance was excellent. The electronics worked, so we had the deployment of a small parachute at apogee so the rocket could drop real fast so it doesn't drift. At altitude, a larger parachute ejected out of the rocket to bring it back safely.

"The only thing that went wrong was we had set up a remote ignition system so that we could stand back about a half-mile without a cord running. These are electrical ignitions, and you need some sort of battery hook-up to run the motor. All we do is start the solid fuel with a small flame inside the engine, and we do that remotely. In the past we'd run an extension cord, but we were experimenting with a new unit that was wireless ... and that didn't work, so we ended up running the extension cord. But that was minor compared to the launch and recovery of the rocket. And we‘ve worked that out since."

Students standing in a field with a rocket angled on a launch stand

Students prepare their rocket to launch from a mobile launch platform.
Image Credit: Tim Young

Young credits the rocket's first-time success to using tried-and-true methods. Young said he and students looked at a lot of other universities' rocket projects and learned from their successes and failures. "There's not a real high success rate (for student-built rockets), and it's really because there's so many variables in things that can go wrong," Young said.

The North Dakota project used methods and materials that were proven to work and also installed onboard backup systems. "You try your best to eliminate as many possible failures as you can," Young said.

Matthew Voigt, a UND senior studying physics and astrophysics, said the project gave him a greater respect for the professionals who build "such mechanical marvels" as rockets and other spacecraft.

"From cutting metal and welding it together to build our custom trailer, to spending hours each day, fabricating parts for the rocket, I know now the dedication that is required to be successful," Voigt said.

"The biggest impact that I experienced happened the moment of the launch. I nearly fell over. To have transformed a drawing on a chalkboard to something that soared into the air that day just stole my breath away. It has given me confidence in my work now, in the classroom and working with my hands in fabricating the trailer and rocket. It has also opened up a field of work that intrigues me."

Senior Arjay Eve has been interested in rockets since he was in middle school. He is studying physics at UND with an emphasis in astronomy. He said the hands-on design and construction process showed him how a rocket works and also improved his leadership and communication skills.

"It was a blast to actually work on something bigger than the 12-inch model rockets," Eve said. "I learned so much more when trying to build this bigger rocket because the bigger we build the more attention to detail is needed just to make sure that nothing will go bad on launch day. ... It was a struggle at first trying to make sure that all the people in the team got the general overview, and when it came time to put pieces together, having everything fit was a good feeling. Having a lot of people working on different things made communication a priority, since we needed to know what was done and what wasn't."

The project launched another low-altitude test Oct. 1 and will launch in public for the first time in late October, aimed at reaching 10,000 feet. That launch will also carry a student-built video experiment. The project is currently holding a competition to solicit ideas for payload experiments. In a launch planned for spring 2008, the rocket will carry several student-developed scientific experiments. Young hopes to generate enough financial support to launch annually.

The project was a collaboration of students from all undergraduate levels and several areas of study, including electrical and mechanical engineering, physics, chemistry, space studies, aviation and anthropology. Students represent the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University.

Young said students are already anticipating the next launch. "They can’t wait," he said. "They're in my office wanting to know when we're going to do more stuff."

Related Resources
North Dakota Space Grant  →
NASA National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program
University of North Dakota Student Rocket Project  →
Tailor-Made for Exploration Feature
Podcast Episode 32: Johnathan McClure
NASA Education Web Site  →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services