The Real Stuff
Clark STEM students up against prestigious universities in their quest for glory
By Rhonda Morin
Imagine spending thousands of hours designing, painstakingly documenting and building a nine-foot rocket. You load everything into an SUV and drive 650 miles to Mule Flats about 20 minutes east of Carson City, Nev., to test if the thing will actually get off the ground.
Success! Not only does the rocket zoom more than a mile high into the air—higher than projected—its parachute releases and drifts with ease to the sagebrush desert floor below.
Then the nightmare begins.
A shift in the wind catches a flap of the nylon parachute and instantly re-inflates it, yanking the apparatus up, then down—like a bobbing jellyfish—while dragging the tail of the rocket over jagged rocks for nearly a mile before coming to a stop. The forward portion of the aft tube is crushed, yet amazingly mostly intact. But this was the test run for the following week’s NASA student competition. With no time for repairs, you’re out of the running before you even arrive at the Huntsville, Ala., contest.
That was the scenario for Clark College students last year. It was the furthest the college’s Aerospace Club had ever come to competing at the annual NASA Student Launch, something they first got involved with in 2011.
Disheartened, but not defeated, the team of nine students and faculty member Keith Stansbury still traveled to Huntsville, with the pieces of their rocket, to watch the launch event at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
They were not the only ones who experienced pre-launch failure; University of Notre Dame’s rocket was a pile of debris “What they discovered was that many other teams had failures such that they did not have a rocket to fly at the official competition, and that the entire event was about much more than just flying rockets. Students came back from that trip more jazzed than I have ever seen them,” said Stansbury, who holds a degree in aerospace engineering and is the head of the Computer-aided Design and Drafting Department at Clark College.
Clark students are up against some of the most prestigious four-year institutions in the nation. Cornell University, Florida A&M University and University of Colorado are just a few of the 26 colleges and universities in 16 states and Puerto Rico that are preparing for the 2013-14 NASA Student Launch rocketry competition in May at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Clark College, a two-year community college that specializes in transfer degrees for aspiring engineers, scientists and mathematicians, is up against students pursuing doctorates in aerospace engineering. These are some of the brightest young people in America who thrive on design research and are hungry for early recognition in their fields of study.
The Bonneville Salt Flats have historical significance for the United States; it has been the site for American land-speed tests since 1914 and was the landing location of NASA’s 2006 Stardust mission that returned comet and interstellar dust samples to earth. Students will go through the rigors of a NASA readiness review, just like an actual NASA mission. Past competitions have required students to propel their rockets at least one mile up into the atmosphere. This year they can go as high as 20,000 feet or 3.8 miles.
Another new feature is that the vehicles must come equipped with homemade parachutes and include three payloads—the equipment that does the work of a mission—capable of delivering data. One of the payloads is mandatory—a landing hazard system that includes a camera and software that transmits real-time data about surface conditions. Students can choose the other two loads from a list of options, such as features that test how liquids behave in microgravity and the reaction of paint and coatings during supersonic flights. All payloads must be recoverable and reusable, in other words, a rocket that smashes into pieces upon landing doesn’t make the cut.
Moreover, it’s not enough to speculate that a rocket will fly high; rather, Clark students will need to predict the altitude of their launch.
Winners whose rocket reaches closest to the predicted altitude, take home the gold in the form of a $5,000 scholarship from corporate sponsor, ATK Aerospace Group of Utah. The competition is organized by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and sponsored by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
There are other ancillary prizes, including a new safety award that rewards students for integrating safeguards into their design, launch and ground operations, according to NASA.
No easy task
Well before they can imagine victory, Clark students must prepare hundreds of pages of detailed preliminary and post-launch reports, as well as a website about their work. They must also volunteer in the community in order to get younger people excited and engaged about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
This is not a project for the procrastinator.
“Our students will be required to create hundreds of pages of technical documentation, among other deliverables, and one cannot create a substantial document of this nature in short order,” said Stansbury.
“In fact, in their entire community college experience, students will not encounter any assignment that could even approach the magnitude of what is required here. It is likely that this single experience will be one of the most important in the unfolding of their future careers,” he said.
Taylor Silagy, 26, of Battle Ground, Wash., is an engineering transfer student at Clark whose interest is in astronautical engineering. He hopes to one day send satellites to other planets. This is his second attempt at making it all the way to the NASA competition. He was one of two students and Stansbury who watched last year’s rocket fly in the Nevada desert, before its crippling demise.
“I saw it land and the parachute re-inflate. I started running to save it. Keith (Stansbury) was in the SUV driving like a madman. After it was said and done all that was left was a torn-up rocket that we’d worked on for months,” said Silagy, who is this year’s project manager.
Now with a new challenge ahead of them, Clark’s Aerospace Club is in high gear. They have less than two months to build the vehicle, whereas last year there were three months. And though they still have last year’s rocket, it’s just a 9-foot piece of Clark history collecting dust in Stansbury’s CADD classroom because the students have been tasked with a whole new design.
An aircraft fairing system—a structure that reduces drag—is on tap this time. During the flight, the nose cone will separate from the rocket at a precise change in pressure. First a two-foot, hand-sewn parachute will eject, then about 1,000 feet from the ground, a second 16-foot parachute will release to carry the rocket softly back to earth, where it will hopefully stay put this time.
Club members will head to Brothers, Ore., in Deschutes County, on April 18 to test the rocket in flight. NASA requires all vehicles to be tested before entering the competition. Flight waivers must be secured from the Federal Aviation Administration. Fortunately, Clark College has a friend and mentor in Fred Azinger, who is a member of the Oregon Rocketry Club and has the clearance to handle motor and black powder charges.
Silagy, with a T-shirt broadcasting the chemical element Erbrium on his chest, is devoted to the success of the project and making the most of his STEM education. He’s also a member of the N.E.R.D. Girls (Not Even Remotely Dorky) Club that brings the cool stuff about science and engineering into the classrooms of regional middle school children.
“I get to do what I love,” he said. “I get to play with rockets and design them. And I get to work with a team I like to be around.”
There’s also Ben who is the lead engineer; Jason and Edward overseeing the recovery system; TJ, Keith, Ryan, Harry and Andrew focusing on the payload and electronics; Audrey and Dan, the flight dynamics engineers; Seth, safety officer; Michael, drafter; and Vicki, web master.
It’s truly a team effort that will be won or lost together. But the rewards of the experience will last a lifetime.
“We got to see a lot of cool ideas (during the NASA event),” said Silagy. We hung out with students from Mississippi State and Penn State, made connections on Facebook and went online to get ideas from other schools.”
Rockets to robots
Carlene Goodbody, 33, was part of the Aerospace Club during the ill-fated Nevada pre-launch. She got swept up in the excitement of the design and build after listening to an enthusiastic lecture Stansbury gave to her engineering class.
“Before I knew it, I was overseeing the electronics of the project,” said Goodbody.
The former Navy Seaman landed at Clark following stints at colleges in Arizona, Texas and California. “I was injured after two years of military service and had to leave. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I left the Navy.”
To pay the bills, she worked as an administrative assistant, where she realized she had a knack for computers. Goodbody started compiling certifications and landed a job in the IT field, but quickly found it crowded with men who didn’t support her work.
“It was a boy’s club. There seemed to be a higher confidence in men by my superiors,” she said. Goodbody lost her job in 2012 during the sour economy, so she decided to return to college. Now at Clark, she’s studying for her associate of science in computer engineering, a transfer degree that prepares her to pursue a bachelor’s. Her goals include being a quantum computing researcher, perhaps at MIT or a NASA facility.
She said she thoroughly enjoyed the process of developing a product from start to finish with the Aerospace Club. “With the right team, anything can be accomplished.”
Now she’s put together her own team at Clark and she entered into another national challenge—NASA’s Robotic Mining Competition.
The MARS Club (Massively Awesome Robotics System), worked feverishly to design, build, test and launch a mining robot that traverses simulated Martian terrain, excavates Martian dust and deposits the fine basaltic (called regolith) into a collection bin within 10 minutes.
The MARS Club students had hoped to ship their creation and travel to the Kennedy Space Station in Florida in May to compete with 43 other colleges and universities. But, time ran out for them. They weren’t able to hit the mandatory deadlines and had to withdraw from the competition in April.
Goodbody will continue to lead this group of 10 students because she enjoys working with a team and the valuable lessons that are learned during the group process.
“There’s nothing as complex as when you have to do your part, plus work as a larger group. I want us to have fun and discover that we can in fact build this robot,” said Goodbody, who is the first in her immediate family to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
Funding for the project was sparse. The MARS Club is new at Clark, and though it qualifies for some student funding, it’s far from the $35,000 needed to design and build a robot and travel to the competition. Undaunted, the students dug into their own pockets and found scrap and recycled materials to begin the project.
Perhaps next year with more time, the students will actually get to play on Mars.
The Stuff You Need to Know About NASA Student Competitions
Editor’s note:The MARS Club pulled out of the NASA competition in April because they were not able to meet the pre-design deadline. However, they will continue to build the robot and demonstrate it during a campus engineering event in June. The Aerospace Club, on the other hand, successfully launched and landed their rocket during a test run in April. They will be heading to Utah in May to compete.