Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA) Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition

It’s a story that seems made for Hollywood:

An engineering student stumbles across a notice about an international rocket competition and casually asks a couple of his roommates if they want to build a rocket. The roomies collectively respond, “Cool! We’re in!”

Several other engineering students get wind of the project and sign on to the fledgling team. Initial planning meetings draw more than 40 students, all excited to be part of the rocket project.

The only problem is that none of the students has any experience designing and building high-powered rockets, let alone a 10-foot-tall, 50-pound, solid fuel, Level III rocket capable of reaching 10,000 feet while carrying a payload of at least 10 pounds.

But that doesn’t deter them.

Nor does it deter the middle-school student who signs on when the team does some K-12 outreach. The eighth grader wants to design a special payload that includes a GoPro camera that will deploy at peak trajectory and film the rocket’s descent back to Earth, slowed by two parachutes.

Twenty-seven undergraduates in mechanical and electrical engineering put forth a Herculean effort that includes countless meetings, long hours of research in libraries and labs, late nights with gallons of Red Bull, hands-on testing and retesting, successes and setbacks.

Nine months later, the team packs up and drives cross-country to the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA) Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition in the desert near Green River, Utah.

They beat 22 other teams from around the world with an almost perfect launch of 10,280 feet and take home the $1,000 prize in the Basic Category.

They also win the $100 Payload Prize, thanks in part to the middle-schooler’s contribution and the team’s ingenuity. Many team members land prestigious summer internships in the aerospace industry at places like Boeing, SpaceX, NASA Ames, and elsewhere.

This is no Hollywood movie — it’s a true story that happened at Oregon State University, and it just might alter the course of aerodynamics at the College of Engineering.

The team project fostered camaraderie and a sense of collaboration that the team’s faculty advisor, Nancy Squires, called “absolutely amazing.” Squires came to Oregon State in 2005 following a career in the aerospace industry, interspersed with teaching stints. She said the students made every part of the rocket, except one retaining ring, from scratch.

"They rolled the carbon fiber into tubes, built the motor, mixed the fuel, everything — including how to collaborate as a team and network with industry,” Squires said. “My role was really just to provide moral support, give mission success speeches, and bring cookies to the launches. They did everything themselves.”

Pretty impressive, given that Oregon State doesn’t even have an aerospace engineering program — something many of the competing teams were part of. But Oregon State does have an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) student club, founded two years ago by Roberto Albertani, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and engineering students Brandon Thoennes and Michael Roos. In addition to Squires and Albertani, the team found mentorship from three members of the Oregon Rocketry Club, which has a launch site near Brothers, Oregon.

Michael VanderPutten, a senior who served as project lead on the team and was interning at Boeing last summer, said the biggest challenge was the lack of knowledge and experience.

“Our team’s main hurdle was the fact that none of us had done anything like this before,” he said. “Other schools had been participating in the competition for several years. So our biggest challenge was the learning curve and knowing how things had to work for the entire system.”

The team addressed this lack of knowledge by traveling to the Brothers launch site, where they camped and networked and ultimately met the mentors — Joe Bevier, Steve Cutonilli, and John Lyngdal — who would work closely with the team.

“They were so helpful...Steve let our team into his mobile lab, where we formulated and mixed our own solid fuel — jet black to go with the Beaver orange flames,” VanderPutten said. “Joe taught us how to lay fiberglass for coupler tubes, and we rolled our own carbon body tubes at Innovative Composite Engineering.”

VanderPutten said the project definitely prepared him for work in industry and changed his perspective on classroom lessons. “When I applied what I was learning in class to this hands-on project, I was suddenly much more interested in the coursework
and worked as hard as possible.”

The project also influenced VanderPutten’s decision to return for graduate school this fall, where he will study thermal fluid flow.

“I wasn’t even considering grad school before this project,” he said. “But it’s changed lots of things.” He’ll be involved with the rocket team again this year, in a managerial role. This summer, after his workday ended at Boeing in Seattle, he logged a couple hours each evening planning for next year’s project. Sierra Bray, who will be a senior and serve as the team’s vice president this year, credits the project with helping her land a summer internship at NASA Ames Research Center, where she worked on a new flight simulator for helicopters.

“One of the key things we learned is that testing is really important,” she said. “A lot can go wrong.” The team did two test launches in Brothers leading up to the competition. On the first one, the main parachute deployed too early, so the rocket, named
“Terminal Gravity,” drifted a long distance, making recovery challenging. But it didn’t explode into a ball of fireworks, which  happened to some rockets at the ESRA Competition — one before it even left the launch pad.

Whitney Hopple, a senior on last year’s team, said she will never forget the late nights working in the lab. “Even at the most difficult moments, someone would make a joke, we’d all have another Red Bull, and enjoy staying up another few hours until the job was done,” she said. “No one ever lost sight of the end goal.”

Hopple says the project helped her secure an internship at SpaceX in Los Angeles this fall, where she will work on composites for rockets.

Squires said that student participation in competitions is a big plus to prospective employers, and Oregon State students stand out as industry-ready.

“I’ve taught at Stanford, UC San Diego, the Colorado School of Mines, and elsewhere, and the students here at Oregon State are the best I’ve ever worked with,” she said. “They have a work ethic and a desire to succeed that companies notice. They’re competing with graduates from top aerospace programs, and our students are getting the jobs.”

Next year, the team plans to compete in the Advanced Category at the ESRA Competition, which means they need to build a rocket that can reach 25,000 feet.

“It will be a bigger challenge,” Bray said. “But since we did so well this year, we want to see how well we can do at the next level.” With so many members from last year’s tight-knit and talented team returning next year — including four as graduate students, it just might make for another happy, high-flying Hollywood ending. Stay tuned for the sequel.

 Gregg Kleiner   


Published Date: 
Tuesday, March 31, 2015