Fri, 12/11/2015

It’s March 16, 2015—a frigid Sunday morning. Two feet of snow and heavy, wet slush covers the frozen ground, and the cloud cover is thick. It’s not going to be easy to launch a rocket today.

But for the four CHC students competing in NASA’s Student Launch competition, it’s now or never. If they don’t get their test launch done soon, they won’t be eligible for the competition in April. So they prepare the equipment, including 300 feet of extension cord and their 22.5-pound rocket, to make the drive out to an airfield in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

One small problem: their car has been towed out of their own driveway.

For Commonwealth Honors College seniors Max Perham, Greg Kelley, Nathan Fowler and Andrew Dodd, designing, building and launching a 9.5-foot rocket proved to be a challenge. Last year, they started the university’s first-ever launch team, beginning the project with little funding, no dedicated work spaces, and no precedent for this kind of project on campus. Their rocket served as a NASA competition entry and as their honors theses, which made for a long list of rigid requirements and deadlines to meet, and a year of non-stop work, shortened school breaks, lost sleep, and unanticipated weather delays.

“You have to be stubbornly determined that you will push and prod and drag your project from start to finish no matter what,” said Max Perham. “But if you make the right friends and are determined to simply get it done, it will happen.”

The NASA Student Launch is an annual competition that brings together students from around the country. In addition to designing, building, and launching a rocket, competitors must write proposals, submit plans and designs for review, and ensure that safety protocols are met. The eight-month process mirrors the steps NASA engineers must take before launching one of their own rockets. Competing in the student launch is a prestigious accomplishment for engineering students.

A few days after that snowy Sunday, the four student engineers recovered their car and made the two-hour drive to Amesbury to test the rocket. A month later, they traveled to the competition in Alabama and took home the award for 2015 Rookie of the Year.  Connections proved to be invaluable to their success, with help from outside mentor Howard Greenblatt, honors thesis advisor James Rinderle, and funding secured from honors research grants. Now, as UMass alumni, this trailblazing team hopes to be a resource for the future.

Pavel Grigorash and Tom Nilsson are current honors seniors leading a new launch team that will compete in NASA’s Centennial Challenge in spring 2016. The new team shares an ambitious, overarching goal with last year’s: build up a larger, better, more sustainable student launch program at UMass Amherst.

Though they are careful not to influence the plans or designs in any way, the alumni have communicated frequently with the new team, sharing their do’s-and-don’ts for a successful year. Perham has promoted the team’s MinuteFund campaign, while Kelley and Fowler attended the year’s first test launch.

“I would love to return in five years and see a team of fifteen students. There are so many avenues for this to be bigger and more multidisciplinary, and it should be,” Fowler said.

The seven current members range from sophomores to seniors. Declan Gwynne, a sophomore team member, outlined the long-term goal to extend the program to students of multiple majors. Computer science and electrical engineers could help program and design the rocket, he explained, and education majors could help the team introduce rocketry to the broader UMass and Pioneer Valley communities. Ideally, students will remain with the program through graduation and bring their expertise to the new team each year.

For now, the team is focused on preparing its rocket. In November, NASA reviewed the design and granted approval to advance toward the competition. The students meet throughout the week in the basement of the Engineering Lab, over tables covered with equipment and 3D-printed parts and surrounded by easels and whiteboards filled with notes and designs. Sophomore Kaitlin Perkins said she doesn’t mind all the work. “It’s definitely a huge time commitment, but I totally enjoy it,” she said. “By being on this team, I’ve made a lot of new friends.”

“The team environment is the best part,” echoed Nilsson. Together, they make the best of all the work, whether that means ordering pizza while writing 100-plus-page reports on nights and weekends, or singing along to “Yellow Submarine” on the long road trips to the airfield in Amesbury.

To extend the reach of its work, the team has plans to visit local elementary and middle schools to provide opportunities for young students to learn about engineering, science, and technology. At UMass, the team presents its work at open house events and is already generating interest among students in the honors and engineering colleges.

“It would be great to see this project take off,” Nilsson said.