Who Knew a Rocket Launch Could Be Such a Hassle?

MinerlaunchSUN_8429It’s been 18 hours since Hyperion lifted off from the dusty surface of the San Rafael Desert, and there’s still no sign of the upper stage and its payload experiments.

Chief engineer Kyle Bruer has been leading a search party since late this morning. We have heard that they are coming in from the field and haven’t succumbed to the heat, dust, gnats, scorpions, cow patties or rock ledges that make this place such a memorable place* to visit.

No telling if they’ve found other long-lost launch vehicles, or if the Miners’ rocket is coming back in a bag, in large chunks, or not at all.

*It IS amazingly beautiful out here. It’s just much more hospitable in the Spring and Fall…

UPDATE! The recovery party abandoned the search about 5:00 this afternoon, but they did find the remains of at least one other team’s rocket. Protocol requires that you don’t touch another missile since you don’t know what powder charges or motors might remain on board, simply record the GPS coordinates for later recovery. At tonight’s banquet/picnic they made another team extremely happy to know their project was found. Who knows? Maybe they’ll find ours when they get back out there.

Lastly, the motto of the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association is “Knowledge by Experimentation.” Quite fitting.

Dawn in the Desert

It’s just after sunset on Day #3 of the Intercollegiate Engineering Rocket Competition and Missouri S&T’s HPER Rocket Team has been out scouring the San Rafael Desert for the rocket sustainer (second stage) of their errant launch vehicle.

More on that later but the slow pace of yesterday’s launches meant that the remaining dozen or more advanced class rocket teams had just a four-hour window to fly or go home empty handed. That window started at 7:00 a.m. today, and with a first-come, first served flight order the Miners staggered out of their hotel at 5:00 a.m. to get an early place in line.
Dawn in the desert is beautiful. It’s cool and a little breezy so those students not working on crucial launch tasks had a few moments to take in the stillness.

Or partake of the daily pre-heat communal hydrate ceremony.

Or run around the desert floor testing the booster parachute.

Or work feverishly to make the 11:00 a.m. cut-off time, which they did with less than a minute to spare.

We Interrupt This Card Game for a Few Rocket Launches.

CardgameDSC_2620There’s lots of downtime at a rocket event. Rockets fly in salvos maybe an hour apart, so there’s plenty of time to sit in the shade and play cards.

WATCHSUN_7603But when the countdown comes over the PA system everyone steps outside to watch. As short as flights may be, it’s exhilarating to hear these vehicles roar out of sight.

The first day of IREC is devoted to “basic” rocket launches, the missiles that only reach about 10,000 feet altitude. Tomorrow is the big ‘uns, the advanced teams whose target altitude is more that double that. The Miners are in the advanced class, and since the firing order is first-come, first-served, they plan to head out to base camp at roughly 6:00 a.m. Hopefully after the scorpions go underground, but well before the temps begin their inevitable climb into the triple digits.

Launch “salvos” are carefully scripted with safety in mind. Up to six teams at a time can mount their rockets to “rails,” fixed towers some 200 yards away from base camp. Once all teams are ready to launch the rail area is evacuated and base camp is locked down so that no one is caught wandering around the desert if a rocket develops a problem. One rocket at a time is given the countdown and then sent skyward with a huge, hissing roar. All eyes are fixed on the missile until it either returns to the ground under parachutes or impacts the ground with a loud “BANG!” that can be heard/felt many hundreds of yards away. A complete flight takes roughly four minutes, so a salvo can last half an hour or more.
BasecampDSC_2601The weather has been perfect for these launches. Not a cloud within 50 miles, a steady breeze, and low humidity. Base camp, well out of range of any cell phone service, is like a gold rush town that springs up overnight and where only one language is spoken. Rockets.

College Engineering Humor at its Finest

Facebook has become the method of choice to get the word out about what you are doing, so follow this group (and other Missouri S&T design teams) on FB. It’s uh, different.

Hyperion is the HPER team’s 2015 launch vehicle, and the students are justifiably protective of their year-long design build project.

Pre-flight Briefings

Day 1 at IREC is all about getting organized, starting with an all-hands-on-deck briefing about safety, judging, safety, outreach, safety, launch procedures, safety, rocket recovery operations, and more safety.

Rockettalk3LRThe rest of the morning was devoted to advanced teams design presentations. The Miners three-experiment payload includes fin-mounted thermocouplers to record the rocket’s surface temperature during flight, a particulate capture system to research air pollution at altitudes, and a small “satellite” from Australia designed to take it’s own “selfie” photo during descent.

One gets the impression that attendees can expect to return home with neck pains, as the watchword is “look up!” during flight operations. Each 20,000-ft plus rocket mission is expected to last about 4 minutes and attendees are supposed to watch the entire time. That’s four minutes with parachute descent, considerably less if the chute doesn’t deploy.

Even though each rocket stage has tracking devices on board, following the parachute to the ground makes recovery much easier. Seeing a slender, 12-foot rocket coming straight down at over 100 mph is also worth your time, as you’ll want to get out of the way quickly.

Incidents are rare, as winds tend to carry the vehicles well away from the operations base, and if a problem DOES develop warning sirens are at the ready.

Kinda makes you feel right at home during tornado season.

Rockets Away!!

Members of the Missouri S&T High Power Engineered Rocket (HPER) Design Team will be the next generation of rocket scientists, and they’ve moved up in class and complexity this year by entering the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), a four-day event at which each of nearly forty teams gets just one flight. That’s right, a year or more of work and planning comes down to a single launch.
The 11-member crew, plus two honorary team members from the University of Sydney (Australia), set up in the breakfast room of the Green River, Utah Comfort Inn last night to prep for today’s presentations. They have to explain everything they set out to do to some daunting rocketry experts who will also determine if the bird will even be allowed to fly.

How’d the Aussies get involved? They designed and built one of the three on-board payload experiments the Miners will fly. Why’d they pick S&T? It seems their partnership with another school fizzled when that rocket launched in many directions and in a few thousand pieces all at once. No more launch vehicle, and the Miners said “Sure! Come with us!”

Things like that happen in rocketry and real life. While crossing Kansas en route to Utah, the Miners blew a head gasket on the truck hauling all their gear. An amazing effort on the part of Sandee Champ, the SDELC’s admin assistant, located a rental truck some 50 miles away, and with a bit of scrambling they repacked everything and made up all but one hour of their travel schedule!

It’s Springtime In The Ozarks!

The dogwoods are blooming, turtles are crossing the road en masse, thunderstorms are brewing and S&T’s design teams are on the road. SolarCarDSC_6875
A revitalized solar car team took a weekend training run on the Licking race circuit, aka US highway 63. They’re wringing out Solar Miner VIII to make sure the battery management system is doing its critical job. SolCarDSC_6824Cloudy weather, road kill and brittle battery tabs limited the car to a mere 90 miles, but before long they’ll wire in the new, and much more energy dense battery pack.

Tomorrow morning four teams head out to intercollegiate competitions. Steel Bridge and Concrete Canoe head to KU at Lawrence, KS for the ASCE Mid-continent student conference while two other groups head to drought-plagued California; Human Powered Vehicle to San Jose and Advanced Aero Vehicle Group/SAE Aero to Van Nuys. The HPVC team will debut Leviathan, the amazing leaning recumbent trike. We’ve seen other vehicles made up as cattle, but never has a team showed up with a sea monster beautifully painted on their bike, trike, or whatever.

The Miners have built their best boat in years and dubbed it (cue Star Wars theme) Joebi-Wan Canoebe. A concrete cross-section is nestled in R2-D2’s belly and miniature TIE fighters make the cutest little materials containers you ever saw.

Steel Bridge’s over-arch design is a radical departure from last year’s winning entry. It’s much lighter and there’re holding last-minute practice this evening.

Tonight’s a packing frenzy. Loading gear, checking lists for the 10th time, just another evening on a design team.

Stay tuned for more anecdotes and pics. It’s gonna be a busy weekend!

Odds ‘n Ends from SAE Aero 2014…

Karma: If you cloak your plane in secrecy convinced another team will steal your design, don’t crash twice. Think about it; every team spent a year developing and testing their design. It’s hardly likely they’ll copy your aircraft in two hours and rob you of a victory you feel is yours alone. Paranoia won’t be an asset in the workplace.
Protect your aircraft at all times. Aviation freaks can zone out and trip over your plane. You haven’t slept in days, what makes you think they have?
bigger bagSUN_7495
When your job is to recover aircraft, bring a bag big enough for the job.

A beautiful March day in Texas, and all the big-boy toys are out. Bass boats, Harleys, hot rods, a pair of aerobatic aircraft roaming the sky, even a trio of Air Force fighter jets. Aviation-crazy students exclaim “LOOK! Real AIRPLANES!”

Bring all the tools and parts you can. Then double it. You’ll need ‘em.

If your plane can’t get off the runway with your 3-pound package, don’t drop it on the runway. It’s embarrassing.

Flying wings. There’s a reason you never see more than one at SAE Aero events.

Don’t forget SPF 90 sun block. Just because it’s still winter in Missouri is not an excuse to get burned.

Parts left over make not an official flight.

Inverted crashDSC_0042
Hope what you will, never place a cash bet on your own airplane.

Former Big 12 Schools Participate in SAE Aero West

The Texas A&M Aggies……

Sharing S&T’s hanger, Mizzou

Missouri S&T – 2, The Rest Of The World – 1.

Two years ago SAE International* laid out a challenge; develop, produce and operate a small aircraft capable of dropping emergency equipment and supplies to areas in great need. Through two international competitions not one of the nearly fifty engineering teams could make it happen. Saturday afternoon Missouri S&T broke that curse and pulled off the feat to cheers from nearly 1,000 participants and spectators. Sunday would tell if the Miners could do it again.

Weather changes made things really interesting for day #2. Winds were so strong that when some big-winged aircraft attempted to turn away from the wind, disaster struck and several violently flipped over on their backs.
A few planes “hovered”, VTOL-style, over the runway, seemingly an advantage for soft landings but when wind gusts suddenly quit, pilots struggling to coax aircraft down would accidentally slam planes to the ground, with wrecked landing gear a common result.

Plane B made it 2-for-2 with a drop 36 feet from the bull’s eye, but Arizona State quickly erased Rolla’s Bestdrop1SUN_7591Bestdrop2SUN_7592Bestdrop3SUN_7593
monopoly, placing the aid package just 13 feet from perfection. Neither ASU nor S&T could better that drop as the winds pushed the Miners’ last attempt well wide of the designated circle.


S&T ultimately took 4th place in Advanced Class. California-Davis took 1st place, copying the Miners’ 2013 strategy by scoring very well in design and presentation. Cal’s flight operations (right) were, uh, spectacular, leaving them in strong contention for the best crash award. Twice.

*Formerly the Society of Automotive Engineering (cars). They just changed their “brand” to SAE International. It sounds cool and mysterious, and they do a LOT more than car stuff.