Student Features

Having a Blast
As a high school student, John Brendel led teams of students to compete in national rocket competitions. He now has carried his passion for aerospace and rocketry with him to Iowa State University where he is leading teams of college students to new heights.

Three students holding part of a rocket

John Brendel, center, has participated three years in NASA's rocket competitions for high school and college students. Image Credit: NASA

As a high school freshman, Brendel recruited six members from his Boy Scout troop to form a team for Team America Rocketry Challenge. TARC challenges teams to design, build and fly a model rocket to reach a specific altitude and duration determined by a set of rules developed each year. While the rookie team did not place that first year, Brendel said they learned a lot about raising funds, keeping a project on schedule, and not making things more complicated than they needed to be.

The following year, in 2005, the team was made up of all new members. Their rocket performed very well, soaring to 803 feet with a flight time of 52 seconds. The goal that year was 800 feet and 45 seconds. The team placed sixth in the nation and was invited to participate in NASA's Student Launch Initiative. SLI invites the top TARC teams to submit a proposal for designing, building and launching a rocket with a scientific payload to an altitude of one mile. Teams with accepted proposals then build and launch their rockets at the annual SLI launch event, sponsored by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The project supports NASA's goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

For SLI, Brendel formed "Rocket Team X-treme" with classmates at Byron High School in Byron, Ill. The team's payload was designed to measure how hard the drogue parachute pulled on the rocket as it descended. At the launch, the rocket's altimeter deployed the drogue parachute early. The drogue parachute came out at the ascent, while the vehicle was traveling at 400 miles per hour. "This broke the strain gauge, but the rocket deployed the main parachute and the vehicle came down safely," Brendel said.

In 2007, Rocket Team X-treme competed for a second time at SLI. "We came up with the idea to have cambered airfoil fins oriented in the same direction to induce a spin in the rocket to help stabilize it," Brendel said. "It was theorized that this would be more aerodynamic than 'canting' the fins, which is just angling them to make the rocket spin. We mounted an accelerometer on the wall of the rocket to measure the rate of spin of the vehicle."

At the launch, the rocket spun as hoped, and the drogue parachute deployed. The main parachute deployed but failed to open, and the rocket hit the ground very hard, breaking the fins.

As a freshman student at Iowa State University, Brendel worked with Iowa Space Grant and the Iowa State Space Society student organization to start a team of students to compete in the University Student Launch Initiative, NASA's rocket challenge for college students. The team calls itself CySLI -- Cy is the mascot of the Iowa State Cyclones.

The CySLI team built and launched its first rocket for the 2008-09 USLI. The team's science payload was an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV. The rocket launched perfectly, and the UAV was deployed at an altitude of 500 feet. The pilot was able to fly the UAV for a couple of seconds until it went out of radio contact.

Brendel said leading the USLI team was challenging. "It was hard for me to lead this team of all older students, being a freshman while having college classes for the first time and not knowing how the project system worked at our school," he said. "I learned this year how to be a better leader by letting other people take responsibility for aspects of the project, as opposed to me leading all of the parts of the vehicle and payload.

"Each competition is much harder than the last one, and they all build the members up to help them get much needed hands-on experience in the aerospace field. These competitions have made me a better leader working with different people of different ages and skills to one final goal."

John Brendel standing beside a large test gun

As a NASA intern, John Brendel worked on restoring a large impact testing cannon and operated the Micro Light Gas Gun and the Rain Gun. Image Credit: NASA

This summer Brendel interned at Marshall Space Flight Center through the Marshall Space Grant Research Internship Program. (Brendel's brother Mike, who was a member of the early rocket teams, also interned at Marshall as part of NASA's Undergraduate Student Research Project.) John Brendel worked in Marshall's Impact Testing Facility, which uses high-powered guns to simulate meteoroid and debris impacts. He conducted impact testing using a variety of projectiles to simulate micrometeoroids, orbital and launch debris, and weather events like rain and hail. The tests help with the development of materials to ensure safer space exploration. Specifically, Brendel worked on restoring a large impact testing cannon and operated the Micro Light Gas Gun and the Rain Gun.

Brendel credits his involvement in rocket competitions with teaching him different aspects of engineering, not only the design and construction portion, but project management including securing funding, working within timelines, and leading team members. "You have to be able to work with a team to reach your full potential, drawing on all of the members' strengths, whether it be people skills for soliciting funds, technical knowledge for designing the project, or hands-on experience for construction," Brendel said.

"Being a part of these competitions has also helped me greatly in meeting important people at NASA and the aerospace industry. The aerospace community is a much smaller world than I had previously thought. It really does help to get out and shake hands with different people in the field and have them put faces with names when you go to apply for an internship and someday a full-time job."

Brendel is leading the CySLI team back to USLI in 2010 and has joined a team of Iowa State students designing a radio-controlled aircraft for SAE International's Aero Design Competition. He is interested in leading teams in a sounding rocket competition and the AIAA Student Design/Build/Fly radio-controlled aircraft competition.

"I hope to lead more engineering teams, as well as try and get a lot of underclassmen involved to lead the following years' teams to keep our department involved in these competitions," Brendel said. "After I graduate, I hope to work for NASA or a contractor on base working with liquid engine propulsion elements."

The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters provides funding for SLI and USLI. ATK Launch Systems is the corporate sponsor for both projects.

Related Resources
NASA Student Launch Initiative (Grades 7-12)
University Student Launch Initiative
Team America Rocketry Challenge   →
SAE Aero Design Competition   →
Aerospace Research Mission Directorate   →
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
Marshall Space Grant Research Internship Program
Undergraduate Student Research Project

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services