Let The Planes Begin!

Aircraft teams from all over the world are gathered at the Lanier Technical Center in Cummings, Georgia. It’s tech inspection time and the stage, floor and all the banquet tables have been turned into mini-airplane hangers.
This is the first time we’ve seen a team from the People’s Republic of China at an SAE Aero event, and among the foreign teams on site are Brazil, Canada, Poland, India, the Big 12 (KU), and Venezuela.
Each aircraft is checked for rules compliance, safety issues, and center of gravity (CG). We overheard one official mention that if a plane’s CG is too far forward or aft of the wing, it won’t take off.
Makes for short “flights”.
Which leads to the admonition we saw on this shirt this morning………….
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International Cooperation In The Space Business

It was obvious at this weekend’s NASA-sponsored University Student Launch Initiative, that rocket engineers around the word share a passion for this science that transcends languages and political borders.
To that end three university teams (too shy to be identified) partnered to salute North Korea’s recent attempt to place a satellite in orbit. Those thoughtful USLI schools set up a three-rocket show of solidarity with the Hermit Kingdom’s fledgling space program, with these results:
Rocket #1: Failed to ignite
Rocket #2: “Lawn darted” (under full thrust, we presume)
Rocket #3: The main parachute deployed during ascent, shredding both the rocket and the chute.
Other teams in attendance passed the hat to help send the rocket’s primary contractor, Wile E. Coyote, Chief Engineer of the Acme Rocket Company, back to North Korea to assist in the investigation.

Lots To Be Learned From Rocket Launches

Chief engineer Jacob Sinclair describes this weekend’s University Student Launch Initiative (USLI) as follows:
“It went OK. Due to the weather they delayed the competition until Sunday, and we ended up launching just before noon.”
“For some reason the drogue ‘chute failed to deploy this time even though the altimeters were programmed correctly. The main chute still ejected on time, and we were all surprised that despite the partial failure there was no damage to the rocket tube. The payload didn’t work as planned but we think it’s an issue of writing to an SD card.”
“We were disappointed to only reach an altitude of 3,704 feet. It was pretty windy when we launched and we thought we went higher. We’ll double check the altimeter after we get back to campus and catch up on our classes.”
“Overall it was a good learning experience for all of the first-time attendees, and our team members who’ve been to USLI learned something as well. So it was a successful weekend.”
Former AAVG team leader and S&T alum Dave Althuis came back to the USLI to cheer on the Miners, and forwarded this stirring video, produced by team member Alex Crook, of S&T’s launch and recovery.

Short But Sweet

S&T’s Advanced Aero Vehicle Group builds a cargo-carrying, semi-autonomous (when it works) airplane, and an instrument-laden rocket.
The plane has been taking shape nicely but there’s been no sign of rocket building, so we asked the team “what gives?” Is the rocket crew dormant? Have they been an inadvertent victim of the end of the Space Shuttle program? Or have they crafted a “stealth” rocket that is so secret they aren’t telling us?
The reality defies imagination.
Jacob Sinclair emailed to say: “We have been building in the shop, but since the plane needs most of the room we just clean everything (emphasis added -ed.) up when we are done. Our stuff is against the wall most of the time.”
We dialed 911 for fear that the SDELC staff would succumb to mass heart attacks, but everyone seemed to be OK after a few liters of oxygen.
Our response to Jacob was less than diplomatic………
“You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding.”
“Clean up after yourselves?? Are you trying to give us coronaries? Do you REALLY expect us to believe a design team would actually DO that? April Fool’s was yesterday, so please, work on your timing!”

Jacob’s embarrassed response: “Sorry, guys. Didn’t mean to scare you. We’ll try to leave stuff lying around from now on” brought things mostly back to normal.
And yes, they DO have a successful rocket, tested in central Missouri over Spring Break. A short but successful flight, marred only by the late deployment of the parachute. Easily repairable damage, but at least it saved time getting the rocket back to earth.

Advanced Aero Vehicle Group: With Innovation, Comes Risk

The Miners headed to Marietta, Georgia (backyard of event sponsor Lockeed-Martin) over the weekend to fly their heavy-lift airplane.
Dave Althuis reports that their innovative design, incorporating leading-edge flaps, was a big hit with the SAE Aero judges. He says the approach had never been tried before at an aero event and that may be one big reason why the team copped the top score in project design.
And then problems cropped up in the execution of the design:
1. Center-of-gravity: The plane was tail-heavy so they added weight to the front to move the center of gravity forward. Once the plane was properly balanced the total aircraft weight came to 49 lbs. Problem was, the airplane was designed with a maximum take-off weight of only 45 lbs.
2. Engines: S&T’s two engines use a tuned-port exhaust system which must be carefully plotted, balanced and synchronized. Even a few thousandths of an inch can make all the difference, and somehow the tubes weren’t even close to correct. That resulted in too little of the all-important ooomph needed to get even the design weight off the ground, let alone the enhanced gross weight.
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Against all odds, uber-pilot Kelly O’Connor managed to get the craft to claw its way into the air to an altitude of perhaps 10 (yes, TEN) feet, and that’s when the things really got interesting. Seems the altered power-to-weight ratio, combined with the resulting slow take-off speed, caused unpredictable stall effects. In plain english that means “now you’re flying, now you’re not!”
The sudden onset of stall impeded the ailerons’ ability to control flight direction, so the bird refused to turn left, wiping out any possibility of NASCAR sponsorship. And on the right? The spectators, so Kelly had to abort the flight and pancake the plane to the ground. The plane could have been repaired overnight, but any more attempts wouldn’t change the plane’s fatal flight characteristics so they packed it in and enjoyed other teams’ airborne misfortunes.
The good news? S&T’s Data Acquisition System, which measured take-off and landing rolls, worked great in tech inspection. That was a big improvement over last year’s design.
The biggest challenge they faced? Weather. A side effect of April’s deadly rain and storms was that all the Miners’ test flights got rained out, leaving them with no way to verify their design before competition.
Overall they think they managed 6th place out of 7 advanced class teams, not bad for an aircraft that barely flew.
The winners? The Polish team had the only advanced-class certified flight. They lifted a record cargo weight, posted the highest ratio of cargo-to-payload, and have been consistently successful over the past few years. Well deserved!
Oh, yeah, the prize for the best crash? A brand new garbage bag.

Overcoming Murphy’s Law

AAVGDSC_0593 - 2.jpgNASA’s University Student Launch Initiative (USLI); what could go wrong for S&T, did. Tornado panic and weather delays presaged a long list of S&T screw-ups, forgotten items, assumptions and gremlins that could reduce an Advanced Aero Vehicle Group rocket team member to tears.
Dave Althuis reported the following technical pratfalls:
A 1mm clear coat in the wrong place makes a rocket nearly impossible to take apart. It took two football players using pipe straps and a hammer hours to dislodge.
A household weather station is a great source of aerospace parts when your rocket’s humidity and temp sensors fail. And that’s what happened.
The camera release broke, then somehow started working again.
The Miners left critical electric switches back home, made new ones, broke them and fixed them again. And it worked.
Ditto for the electronics bay bulkheads; turns out Ace Hardware had aerospace-grade plywood, threaded rod, nuts, wing nuts, and a MILSPEC hole saw.
Gremlins ate a critical power terminal screw. A cross-threaded #4 screw and washer sandwich stood in for the proper connection. Couldn’t have flown without this fix.
Three hours of sleep took the thrill out of watching the sun rise over the launch field. And then they got sunburned.
“Oh, yeah”, says Dave, “the rocket flew great”! “Sagitto flew to 4,438 feet (short of the 5,280/1 mile target, and similar to our 4,706 ft test flight), all the re-entry charges worked perfectly, and the camera did stay properly oriented to the horizon. S&T took second place in the outreach category and copped our third “best looking rocket” award in four years. Overcoming all the foul ups gave us a great sense of accomplishment.”
Seriously, Alex Crook put together an amazing YouTube video with a great “you-were-there” feeling.
You don’t have get up at 4:00 a.m. and get sunburned to see this great video clip!

Prepare to Launch!

In his book, “Prepare to Launch: The Astronaut Training Process”, Erik Seedhouse says “today’s astronauts require many different abilities. They must not only be expert in performing flight simulations but must also be proficient in such dissimilar subjects as photography, thermodynamics, electrical repairs, flight procedures, oceanography, public affairs, and geology.”
That same concept applies to S&T’s Advanced Aero Vehicle Group’s rocket team. Their project awards points for strong PR and outreach efforts, their rocket must take specific photos during its trajectory, and, yeah, they must be great engineers.
The Miners have been at NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama facility for two days, and like S&T’s Baia SAE Team, had to suffer through a day of dangerous storms and tornado warnings. Things were so bad, we hear, that NASA scrubbed tomorrow’s rocket flights, and they’ll try again on Sunday. Best guess is that the launch site is too muddy for vehicle traffic, so the aero guys and gals may come down to Jasper to cheer the Baja “Mud Miners”as they get coated in sticky red mud.
You can read more about the AAVG rocket design here here, but we’ll try to bring you news and photos from both events.

Hiho, Hiho, It’s Off to Launch We Go!

AAVGBlog3:11DSC_0236.jpg Yeah, we know, there’s some catching up on the blog to do.
Saturday S&T’s AAVG rocket team braved high winds and an oncoming monsoon to test Sagitto*, their ’11 entry in NASA’s University Student Launch Initiative scheduled for Huntsville, Alabama next month. Sagitto, a two-stage rocket packed with four explosive charges, has two stiff challenges; carry an instrumentation payload one mile in altitude, and have the ‘payload’ section remain upright when it descends to earth.
That means one black powder charge must deploy a drogue parachute at apogee to keep the rocket from becoming a streamlined brick**. Half way to earth the second charge fires ejecting the payload stage, which a mere 100 feet lower sets off its own main parachute blast and deploys three folding legs designed to “land” the payload like the “Eagle” back in 1969. The main rocket body continues to fall away from the instrumentation package before popping its main parachute at 900 feet. Or, you can see a much simpler flight profile version here.
Three of the four charges fired correctly so the main chute didn’t deploy, sending the rocket body plunging to the ground a little faster than planned. They think they didn’t pack the explosive tight enough to get the required force, but thanks to the Spring thaw the ground was soft so damage was minimal. The payload section floated to earth properly but strong cross winds pulled the payload stage over on its side. Nevertheless it was an excellent test flight. Just needs some tweaking.
AAVGTestDSC_0175.jpgSpeaking of explosive charges, these aren’t random fire crackers or cherry bombs. The AAVG crew measures out specific grains (not grams)of black powder to determine the minimum charge necessary to split the sections into only two sections. Rumor has it that during last week’s on-campus testing someone mis-estimated the charge by a factor of nearly two. It separated, alright, much farther (and louder) than expected, but that’s OK. No snakes were harmed in these experiments.
* Latin for “I shoot arrows!”
**The Southern California Soaring Association has a real-life “Streamlined Brick” award; Astronaut Alan Shepard was one of the recipients.

Student Project Manufacturing Ramps Up!

All eyes have been focused on the Kummer Student Design Center for months, but it’s time we turned our focus back to the student teams, the real reason we’re building a bigger design center, anyway.
Record-cold temperatures, near-constant snow since Christmas and cancelled classes haven’t slowed down the Miner designers at all. Jason Brown and Dave Althuis of the Advanced Aero Vehicle Group’s rocket squad braved a 100-mile drive, January’s freezing temps and 4″ of snow to test their 1/2-scale rocket and its critical payload recovery system, only to see it stumble across the sky. Launch officials quickly determined that a faulty motor prevented the bird from attaining enough speed to become stable, so it became as they say, an unguided missile, a pretty good reason never to turn your back on a rocket launch. The good news? The defective motor sputtered so badly that Jason and Dave had no trouble recovering the rocket, as it fell to earth just a few dozen yards from the launch rail.
SUN_3388D.jpgMeanwhile, back at the shop, the full-sized rocket and the cargo airplane are taking shape. We even have reports that the 10′ tall rocket and human-powered-vehicle team’s bike will sport the same ubercool paint scheme.
Our new home? The Kummer Student Design Center is nearly ready for occupancy*. Office carpeting is in, the electrical crews are gone, and the shop floors are undergoing some serious buffing and waxing, but the design teams won’t suddenly stampede across Highway 63 in the middle of the night to claim the shop’s high ground. Instead, individual teams will vacate the old barn when they head to their April and May competitions, and move into the Kummer Center on the return trip, one at a time in an orderly (RIGHT!!!!) fashion. In theory they’ll only have to unpack once and the only thing left at the old shop will be dirt and empty Mountain Dew cans.
*Note to UM System: When you have an office furniture contract with only one firm, things don’t necessarily go as smoothly or quickly as the customer might need. A little competition might light a fire under their, uh, chairs

I Shot A Rocket Into The Air, It Fell to Earth, I Know Not Where…….

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With apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Bullwinkle the Moose, that was pretty much the case in Elsberry, MO last Saturday.
S&T’s Advanced Aero Vehicle Group spent that beautiful fall afternoon running a rocketry workshop to do three things: familiarize the new members with the parts and methods that go into building a high-power rocket, to get those interested in membership to pass their Level 1 certification, and have fun! NASA’s University Student Launch Initiative hosts an annual fly-off, but it you want to play, you have to be certified as at least Level 2, cause they frown on rockets “impacting” in the public viewing areas. Level 1 simply means that it flies on an H or I motor, and you get it back in a recognizable form and then work toward Level 2. Launch-pad explosions don’t count.
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Team leader David Althuis reports that “all but two of our L1 rockets flew, but one had a motor malfunction resulting in a launch-pad torch, the other we couldn’t find when it drifted way off into a corn field.”
“Jason Brown was going for Level 2, where you have to pass a written quiz and then fly a rocket designed to fly on a bigger “motor”. He flew on a J350 but had electronic malfunction that opened the chute at 900 feet on the way up while the motor was still burning.” editor’s note, it wasn’t pretty.
“My rocket flew on a K540 to 6000 ft and separated but the main chute failed to deploy and it fell into a corn field at about 80-90 mph. The carbon fiber tubes held up nicely but one of the plywood fins snapped. Minimal damage for falling from over a mile!”
“We were the only university group there, and more than doubled the attendance of the launch. Two other guys tried to fly a 12-foot-tall rocket, but it broke apart as it reached Mach 1.”
Trips like these build teamwork, and give the students real build/launch experience. Last spring bad weather prevented many of S&T’s test launches so they couldn’t sort out the ‘chute deployment issues. Getting a head start in the fall should result in better team performance at the USLI at Huntsville, Alabama next spring.
Bonus stories:
When the green-clad horde arrived at Elsberry, the event manager was overwhelmed and wouldn’t let AAVG launch due to a paperwork problem, and once that was resolved the Miners couldn’t use their own custom-built launch pad because (get this!), the engineering (guffaw!) was uncertain. But by the end of the day the other rocketeers were heard to remark “if you want a good flight, use S&T’s launch platform!” Guess they settled THAT engineering issue!
Jason Brown wants to add a special thanks to Mark Grant of the Columbia Rocket Club for coming out to help. He was a great help with paper work and getting people ready to have their rockets inspected. The day would not have been nearly as successful without him. Also, a tip o’ the hat to Chris Short of CS Rocketry, who helped us obtain all the rocket kits and supplies on short notice.
Mark also sent this note to the AAVG team:
“You came well prepared with a very good group of students, a well-behaved and well-mannered group. You had a great L1 rocket design, great choice of materials, good assembly skills and nice flights. You are to be congratulated.”
Thank you, Mark!