Not According to Plan
Harding University's rocket didn't perform exactly as planned at this year's University Student Launch Initiative. Shortly after launch, the 8-foot-long rocket separated into two pieces, with its 5-foot-long tail section penetrating deep into the Alabama red clay.

The tail section of a rocket in the ground

Only the tail fins are seen sticking out of the ground after Harding University's rocket malfunctioned at this year's University Student Launch Initiative. Image Credit: NASA

Brett Keller, who led Harding's 2008 "Flying Bison" rocket team, said the team had problems with the electronics at its first USLI appearance in 2007. So, students redesigned the electronics bay into an easily accessible structure made of clear acrylic. Team members could look through the device to confirm proper function. The clear removable covers facilitated access to the batteries and other electronic components.

"Our rocket for the second year was significantly better designed than for the first year -- it was compact, made excellent use of the space it had, had an easily accessible electronics bay, etc.," Keller said. "Unfortunately, the innovative design of the electronics bay allowed air to get to the electronics in some unbalanced way, making the altimeters think it was at apogee when it was actually right after motor burnout.

"The end result was the deployment of the parachutes at approximately 400 miles per hour and the rather complete destruction of the rocket."

The annual USLI competition, organized by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., challenges students to design, build and fly a reusable rocket with a scientific payload to an altitude of one mile. The Harding team's scientific payload was a spectrometer to analyze hybrid rocket exhaust plumes. Hybrid rockets use an inert solid fuel like rubber (HTPB) and an oxidizer, such as liquid oxygen, hydrogen peroxide or nitrous oxide.

The spectroscopy was part of a student research project funded by NASA grants and directed by Harding chemistry professor Ed Wilson. Keller, who recently graduated with bachelor's degrees in political science and in biochemistry and molecular biology, helped Wilson develop the spectrometers for the project.

A rocket soaring into the sky

The Harding rocket flew successfully until about 4 seconds after launch, when air flowing into the electronics bay caused the parachutes to deploy early. Image Credit: NASA

"From the very beginning," Keller said, "we knew that we could use the competition (USLI) as a way to apply the research we had been doing with spectrometers. We had discussed several times that it would be interesting to build a rocket that could launch one of our spectrometers and look at the exhaust plume of a hybrid motor to see how airflow may distort the concentration or distribution of combustion intermediates. We had never done it before because the spectrometers we use are large and expensive."

Wilson leads students at Harding's Searcy, Ark., campus in several research projects using NASA grants. He and his students have participated in the NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development program and the NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR. One of the projects is joint research with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to use a laser spectrometer to study biogenic gases on Mars.

The projects are also supported by the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium. The Arkansas Space Grant Consortium is part of NASA's National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, which funds research, education and public service projects through a national network of university-based consortia.

Keller said the USLI competition gave him the chance to really build on an interest in NASA and in spaceflight that he's had since he was a child. In fifth-grade Keller attended a summer day camp on rockets. "I built my first model rocket there and got hooked," Keller said.

For several years he assisted with rocket launches at the camp, building more than 200 model and high-power rockets. "The hobby faded a bit as I finished high school and started college, mostly because the rockets I wanted to build were too expensive for my budget," Keller said. "The USLI project gave me a chance to take that to another level. And while I still plan on a medical career, being part of USLI got me to thinking again about the astronaut selection process, as I realized a future as a physician-astronaut isn't necessarily out of reach. And it would be an amazing opportunity to do work related to international collaboration and scientific research."

Keller said hands-on involvement in a project like USLI is important for learning the skills of a profession in technical fields like engineering or science. The experience also serves to interest students in a new field, one they may never have thought of.

The team of students and mentors in front of an Ares I model

Harding's "Flying Bison" rocket team gathered for a photo at a display of a model of the new Ares I crew launch vehicle. Image Credit: NASA

"I'd rather build and fly a rocket with my own hands than read about someone else doing it," Keller said. "I think it's important for college students to see their education not as a passive time where they are instructed by those who have already accomplished much, but as a time where they can start doing great things themselves."

Wilson, who has mentored students for nearly two decades, said the lessons learned through USLI are valuable across all disciplines. "The USLI project is valuable, in part, because the students have to write all of these reports just like a NASA engineer would have to do," Wilson said. "Even the students who are not engineering majors have benefited from seeing how you carry a project through and how you define the mission."

Leading Harding's 2009 USLI rocket team is physics and mathematics major Greg Lyons. Lyons, who was also part of the 2008 team, echoed Keller that college students need to be involved with immersive projects like USLI. "It is far too easy for the average student to pass through the undergraduate system without having any practical application of their education," Lyons said. "It is just as important to learn how to work with people as it is to learn how to solve differential equations or do component failure analysis.

"Once a student has an idea of how a real problem is tackled in the scientific and applied science communities, they become a much more valuable asset to their employer, as well as a more competitive student."

USLI is organized and directed by the Academic Affairs Office at Marshall Space Flight Center with financial support by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. The corporate sponsor of this project is ATK Launch Systems of Brigham City, Utah, and Huntsville, Ala.

Projects like USLI, EPSCoR and the Space Grant Consortia support NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future workforce.

Related Resources
University Student Launch Initiative   →
NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, EPSCoR   →
NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development Program   →
Harding University Atmospheric and Space Research Team   →
Arkansas Space Grant Consortium   →
NASA National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program   →
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services