Student team to compete in NASA rocket challenge

From left, Rick Hanton, CprE4, and John Brendel, AerE1

NASA has selected an Iowa State University student team to participate in the 2008–2009 University Student Launch Initiative (USLI) in April. (NASA news release)

Twenty college and university teams from across the country are designing and building rockets for the annual rocketry challenge to be held April 18 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This is Iowa State’s first entry in the competition.

John Brendel, a freshman in aerospace engineering from Oregon, Illinois, is leading Iowa State’s 11-person team. The team’s proposal is to build a rocket that can reach an altitude of one mile and then, during its descent, deploy a small remote-control plane at 1,000 feet. The vehicles will land separately.

Brendel, who participated in NASA’s Student Launch Initiative for high school students in 2007 and 2008, learned about the university initiative while working in New Mexico last summer. He began making contacts via the Internet to see if there would be an interest in forming an Iowa State team. Rick Hanton, a senior in computer engineering and officer in the Iowa State Space Society, worked with Brendel to get a team formed so work could begin as soon as fall semester started.

Following a videoconference with NASA regarding the details of the competition, the team wrote and submitted a proposal in September. While the ability to reach an altitude of one mile is a specific requirement for the USLI, each team plans and designs its own onboard experiment.

The drive behind the competition is to come up with ideas that are marketable, according to Brendel. “Some of our team members build model airplanes as part of the Iowa State Aeronautics Society, so our plan combined the two interests—rockets and planes,” he explains. “Our onboard experiment is to test different loads on the plane. We think mounting a camera on a plane that could be launched in a rocket could provide a way to get a bird’s view of something very quickly. Our experiment will hopefully tell us if this is a feasible goal.”

After learning their proposal had been accepted, the students laid out the details of their plan in a preliminary design review report and built and launched a scale model of the rocket. Next, they developed a critical design report and submitted it for review by NASA engineers. In a videoconference with the engineers, the students will get direct feedback on their design. They will use that input to complete their design.

The rocket, which is being built in the basement of Howe Hall, has a tube diameter of about 7.5 inches and will stand nearly 10 feet tall when complete.

Prior to traveling to Huntsville in April, the team must conduct a full-scale test of the rocket and payload. The test flight will be done in Princeton, Illinois, which has an FAA waiver to launch high-power rockets. Data from that test flight will be included in the final flight review prior to the all-day launch at Marshall Space Flight Center.

The winning team will receive $5,000. The Iowa State team is funded in part by the Government of the Student Body but is also seeking additional funding from corporate sources. Brendel says he expects Iowa State’s rocket to cost around $2,000.