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Meet the Steely-Eyed Rocket Girls
Back in the day, it was high praise to be a "steely-eyed missile man."

The NASA University Student Launch Initiative team from the University of Alabama demonstrates just how much times have changed.

The Rocket Girls and staff advisers

All of the student members of the Rocket Girls were new to the experience of high-power model rocketry. Image Credit: Rocket Girls/UA
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Certainly, one could use the "steely-eyed" part to describe them, which was used to talk about an astronaut, flight controller or rocket engineer who demonstrated ingenuity and determination in the face of extreme pressure.

The problem with using the old, outdated term, however, is that no "missile men" are on the team.

Instead, the team is a group of the school’s best steely-eyed "Rocket Girls."

The UA Rocket Girls will be participating in USLI, the college-level component to NASA’s Student Launch Projects that challenges students to design, build and fly rockets and scientific or engineering payloads.

Rocket Girls team leader Emily Lloyd explained that the school had participated in the project several years ago and that school officials approached a group of students about putting together a new team this year.

"After a few years of not participating, advisers decided it was time to try it out again," Lloyd said. "Their main goal in creating a team was to broaden undergraduate students' experiences in real-life engineering design; thus our senior adviser, Dr. Beth Todd, approached five senior-level female students and hosted an informational meeting concerning the competition. None of the original five members had any rocket-building experience, but decided to accept the task anyway and eagerly recruited other female engineers from civil, mechanical and aerospace engineering to participate. The team now consists of sixteen members, ranging from freshman to senior level. And the younger members of the team plan to participate in next year's competition and carry the team throughout the next few years to create a firm tradition in UA's engineering college.

"The University of Alabama decided to have an all-female team to create unity amongst its small group of female engineers and to also give female engineers hands-on experience working with the machine shop and performing commonly considered 'manly' tasks that our male counterparts may have already been exposed to such as drilling, sawing, soldering and other construction techniques,” Lloyd said.

Three team members and their rocketry mentor hold a rocket

The Rocket Girls named their USLI rocket “Sally” in honor of Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut in space. Image Credit: Rocket Girls/UA
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NASA Student Launch Projects challenge student teams to design and build their own rockets, complete with working science or engineering payloads they also must design, install and operate during flight. To round out the flight operations experience, each team must develop a project website and write progress and post-launch analysis reports. Teams also develop space- and exploration-themed educational projects to share with schools and youth organizations in their communities -- expanding the reach of the projects and inspiring even younger generations to pursue a technical education.

Forty-seven teams from 25 states will take part in the 2010-11 Student Launch Projects, including 17 middle school and high school teams and 30 college and university teams. All will gain practical engineering and flight operations experience intended by NASA to enhance classroom learning -- giving science, mathematics and engineering students a head start on future careers that benefit NASA and the nation.

This year, the University Student Launch Initiative will include two levels. The first level is the traditional version in which students build rockets to fly one mile high. The second is a new demonstration version in which three teams are building rockets to fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet, nearly twice the height of the regular competition. The rockets must then make a water landing and float for one hour before pickup, with the science or engineering payload intact. The demonstration flights will be held at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., on May 21, 2011.

Participants in the traditional version of USLI will bring their rockets to Alabama April 14-16. At NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., professional engineers who work on a variety of NASA missions will review and inspect each rocket to ensure it is flight-ready. The event culminates in the April 16 "launchfest" at a nearby farm, where 44 of this year's rockets will soar to compete for a variety of awards.

Melissa Hembree is the payload team leader for the Rocket Girls, who are participating in the traditional USLI event. She explained that their rocket will carry an experiment to study air flow around protuberances mounted on the side of the vehicle. "While many studies on steady state flow exist, there are relatively few studies on transient flow in a highly accelerating flow field,” she said. "For applications such as rockets, protuberances are inevitable (cameras, satellites, fins, etc.) but they cause flow separation, which results in vortex shedding, drag and varying pressure on the rocket body. These effects in a highly accelerating flow field would be important to study and since turbulent flow is difficult to predict mathematically, this is best done experimentally.”

A student displays the rocket on a table

As part of their outreach efforts, the Rocket Girls displayed their rocket at the McWane Science Center in Birmingham, Ala. Image Credit: Rocket Girls/UA
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Mary Katherine Jones, the technical report officer for the team, said that the experience provided a great real-world example of some of the procedural challenges that can be faced that have nothing to do with the engineering challenges. "As the technical report officer, the greatest challenge dealt with the due dates for our design reports to NASA," she said. “One report was due only a week after we returned from winter break and the other was due just one day after spring break. Since our team members traveled home or to other locations, we had to push the due dates for our group up to ensure that all the information was included in the documents. Another challenge was the group's inexperience. Not one of our team members had a previous experience with high-power rocketry."

Vehicle officer Ashley Randolph said that she has truly benefited from her participation in USLI. "While most members of our team have completed core engineering science courses, no one began this academic year with any experience in high-powered model rocketry. Every minute dedicated to our rocket has been a true learning experience!

"I am extremely proud of all (that) the UA Rocket Girls have accomplished throughout our participation in USLI. As a graduating senior, I am honored to leave UA with a solid foundation in rocketry and am excited to see future teams continue successfully in USLI!"

On the Web:
› NASA University Student Launch Initiative
› UA Rocket Girls →
› NASA Education

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services