Last month, UNC Charlotte’s rocketry team won the Best Vehicle Design award in the NASA Student Launch competition, beating 31 other university teams from across the country in the contest’s rocket construction category.
Although partially charred, with parts burned up or missing after its final launch erupted in a massive fireball, the rocket – nicknamed “Skyminer” and designed by a nine-person team of seniors from the university’s William States Lee College of Engineering – isn’t scheduled for retirement anytime soon.
In fact, despite the damage done by a motor malfunction on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah – where the contest took place and where most attempts at the world land-speed record are made – the rocket probably will never stop working in one capacity or another.
NASA holds the competition for two reasons: to develop a taste for aerospace in up-and-coming generations of engineers, and to glean valuable research data to put to use from budding student rocketeers.
“The research that the students do can be used by NASA or other NASA affiliates for future space launch programs,” said Dr. Karen Thorsett-Hill, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at UNCC and the team’s faculty mentor.
Contest judges were particularly interested in one aspect of UNCC’s rocket. NASA’s main requirement for the contest was to build a reusable rocket equipped with a camera able to spot hazards on the ground; but UNCC’s designers added another feature, which controlled the rocket’s ascent.
“One of the key elements in their design was a thrust modulation system,” said Thorsett-Hill. The added technology helps control a rocket’s ascent after launch. “It’s something that NASA has always kind of struggled with through history.”
This is the third year UNCC has entered the competition, placing mid-pack in the two previous competitions.
“This year we finally got some attention from NASA,” said Thorsett-Hill. “These guys really stepped up the game and did terrific.”
It wasn’t easy. The yearlong process was riddled with obstacles to get the prototype off the ground, beginning with the rocket’s cost.
Mirroring NASA’s own difficulties securing enough funding in the decades after its Apollo missions, UNCC’s team struggled to come up with the $25,000 needed to build and test the rocket.
“It’s hard to run a program like this,” said Thorsett-Hill. “Trying to get money together to allow the seniors to do this type of project – it’s always difficult.”
The team was funded through the N.C. Space Grant Consortium and by departments within the Lee College of Engineering. Private businesses NextGen, BACE and Carolina Composite Rocketry provided additional support.
The expense to make just one rocket put a lot of pressure on designers.
“There’s only one vehicle. There’s no spare parts,” said team member Jerry Dahlberg, 42. “All of our experimentation and testing had to be done on the actual launch vehicle.”
That’s why the university plans to squeeze every ounce of use from the Skyminer, even though the rocket won’t ever be fired into the sky again.
“We are required to engage younger students – middle and high school – to attract them to the field, so that there’s a generation that follows the ones that are doing the research now,” said team member John Cappalletti, 21. “We’ll take it to STEM outreaches and show what we have available as far as design, build and integration.”