MU students to launch rocket at competition in Utah

Tuesday, June 24, 2008 | 12:12 p.m. CDT; updated 2:42 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
MU senior Casey Bohnert watches as fellow engineering student Brian Doerhoff works on a motor mount for the rocket that MU's chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics will enter in a competition in Utah later in the week. It is the first time MU students have entered the rocket launch competition.

COLUMBIA — The sky might be the limit, but 10,000 feet is the target for a group of MU engineering students as they prepare to take their rocket to a competition in Utah later this week.

The students are members of MU’s chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics,and they make up one of five teams that will be competing Thursday and Friday at the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association’s Intercollegiate Rocket Launch Competition.

The event, now in its third year, brings students together to see which team’s rocket can bring a 10-pound payload the closest to 10,000 feet off the ground and back — and which team can present its design most effectively to a group of judges.

The students have had to deal with everything from a relative lack of experience to federal limits on what testing they can do and where. Some help from the community and old-fashioned determination have helped bring the team to this point: MU’s first time attending the competition.

The team attended a model airplane design contest last year and got second place, but since that event was only held once, the students sought out other competitions for this year. Some of the members had worked with small model rockets when they were younger, and the competition seemed like a good fit, said Nick Biggerstaff, a senior on the team.

“It seemed like it would be a good door-opener and resume-builder,” Biggerstaff said.

Ten thousand feet, though, is significantly higher than the models from the students’ childhoods reached.

“To be able to do it on a much larger scale — that’s the main thing that interested me,” said Geoff Glidden, the group’s next chairman.

That larger scale made things a bit difficult for the team to get started.

“We definitely went into it with very little knowledge,” said current chairman Ryan Goold, who just graduated this past spring.

The team met with members of the Columbia Rocket Club to get ideas and advice.

“We gave them what I would call practical advice; more of the how-to sorts of things,” club member Mark Grant said.

Grant said the team learned very quickly.

“I’m astounded by the enthusiasm of this group of students,” he said. “I’m astounded at how quickly they mastered the technology.”

Despite all their hard work, the team members haven’t yet seen their creation fly. The Federal Aviation Administration only allows such rockets to fly to 6,000 feet in Columbia, far short of the team’s design goal.

Goold said the nearest place they would be able to perform a test launch is in “the middle of Kansas,” about eight hours away.

The team has done a test-firing of the rocket’s four-foot-tall motor, though, which Goold called quite spectacular.

Some of the team members have discussed attempting to reach a higher altitude next year.

“Turns out 10,000 feet is actually pretty easy to hit,” Goold said.

Glidden said he’s been told the next-highest target would be 40,000 feet, which he said would be “a pretty good undertaking.”

The higher altitude would present a number of new design challenges. The rocket’s current recovery system, for example, uses gunpowder for its separation charge; the thinner air at more than seven and a half miles off the ground means the system would instead have to use a compressed gas, such as carbon dioxide.

“It would open up so many other areas,” Glidden said.

Regardless of the rocket’s performance this week, the team members said the experience alone has made the project worth their time.

“I’m most looking forward to seeing it be successful,” Glidden said. “Obviously it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it didn’t go up as we planned. It’s been a great learning experience, and the whole thing has been amazing.”

Biggerstaff agreed, saying it doesn’t matter whether the team wins or loses.

“Seeing the rocket fire; that’s really all I care about,” he said.

Adviser Craig Kluever, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said competitions like the one this week are particularly valuable experiences.

“There’s a certain satisfaction that students don’t always get from classes,” he said.

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