Aerospace Club Elevated to Program

By Steven Cooper in News

“You should have seen this room a month ago; it was trash. The fire marshal got very upset,” said Clark Aerospace Club adviser Keith Stansbury with a grin.

Fiberglass rocket parts littered tables and desks while assorted pieces of metal framing lay on the floor. The hectic scene of Room 204 in Applied Arts Building 4 has reaped the rewards.

Fresh from a rocket competition hosted by NASA on April 11, the Clark Aerospace Club is preparing to graduate to an ASCC-sponsored program.

The club will officially upgrade to program status July 1—granting it improved recognition and more flexible funding. The club was founded in spring 2011, and has competed in the NASA Student Launch competition every year since.

NASA hosted the event in Huntsville, Alabama this year. According to documents the club submitted to NASA, the students built a 10-foot, 35-pound rocket capable of reaching a maximum velocity of 393 feet per second, creating nearly 13 G’s and over 300 pounds of thrust.

At the competition, the rocket reached an altitude of 2,568 feet—short of the 3,000-foot goal outlined in the competition rules, said Zach Lemberg, the club’s vice president. The rocket performed nearly perfect, but the payload compartment door opened slightly and may have contributed to the lower altitude, said Lemberg. “It increased the drag and tilted the rocket.”

Building a rocket with a payload compartment was required in previous years, but this year NASA required teams to build an autonomous robot with a mechanical arm capable of placing a simulated sample of Martian soil in the payload compartment of the rocket. Stansbury said this was a first for the competition.

“Some of the electronics got fried on the flight down there,” said Ryan Medic, the club’s president and mission director for the competition. At the competition, the students managed to fix all the electronics except the mechanical arm.

“When it came down to the wire, that was the last part we couldn’t get sorted out with crunch time,” said Steve Ferraro, the club’s retrieval engineer.

The event was divided into two tiers. Teams chose between competing in the “maxi” or the “mini” category. Both tiers required a robot to place the soil sample in the rocket, but only the maxi category required another automated system that raised the rocket from a horizontal orientation to a vertical orientation and inserted the motor igniter.

Clark competed with 23 other teams in the maxi category. Other schools in competition included Cornell University, University of Notre Dame, the United States Naval Academy and Georgia Institute of Technology. Clark was the only community college competing in the maxi category.

According to Stansbury, NASA will announce the top five teams in the competition May 11, because the competition is technically ongoing.

The club must submit a “post launch assessment review.” The majority of the grade doesn’t come from performance on launch day, but from evaluation of documentation submitted by the club, Stansbury said. The club submitted over 600 pages of documentation detailing planning and testing, including a proposal, preliminary design review, critical design review and flight readiness review.

Stansbury said the documentation process is one of the most important parts of the competition because it prepares students to work in the aerospace industry. “It’s miniaturized, but it’s the same process any corporation goes through to fly rockets for NASA.”

Peter Williams, dean of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, agreed. “That’s a great example of what I call project-based learning, where you really have an opportunity for students to be involved in a project that is directly related to their academics. They are really able to learn so much more through that involvement.”

Stansbury said they are planning for next year when the club will have better flexibility as a program.

“ASCC clubs cease to exist in the summer, and in the fall, you have to re-charter the club,” Stansbury said. That means the club had no funding throughout the summer to prepare for competitions later in the year. “The timing is such that by the time we eventually are able to access the money to buy parts and build it and have it tested, it all has to happen in about two months,” he said.

As a program, the college funds them year-round. Preparation will be much easier, Stansbury said. “We now have multiple months to tweak stuff and finalize it if there’s anything that isn’t working right.”

The club will benefit from increased funding. In a budget proposal submitted to ASCC, Stansbury said he requested $24,664. ASCC gave them more than the request—granting them $27,384.

In addition to the NASA competition, Stansbury said the funding will allow them to tour Aerospace-related companies, universities and museums and pay two student staff positions in the program.

The club wants to expand their outreach to local middle schools and high schools, Stansbury said. He has been a mentor the last two years for a Union High School team competing in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, a competition for middle and high schools. Next year, Stansbury said they plan on offering assistance to any Clark County schools that request it.

Regardless of plans for next year, Stansbury said this year’s NASA project laid a solid foundation. “The entirety of the system that was designed and built by these students is by far the most complex and ambitious electromechanical system ever attempted by Clark College students.”

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