No one in the Clark Aerospace team seemed to notice the 95 degree desert heat as they waited for their rocket to be cleared for launch in the New Mexico desert.
Clark College’s Aerospace program was one of two junior colleges that participated in the 2019 Spaceport America Cup, a worldwide competition. Eleven students and their adviser and professor, Keith Stansbury, flew to New Mexico with their rocket to be judged on innovation, design and quality.
Two days into the trip the students were hard at work with last minute alterations, fixing things that somehow went wrong with their rocket. Despite setbacks, the students impressed judges and government officials who saw their rocket design.
Stansbury said this rocket had been the most complex and well thought-out design yet.
Noah Justice, safety officer, was very excited about the government official who stopped for a long time and talked to them about their work. “He came over in part because he was interested in the air brakes,” Justice said. “The fact that he came over, was really interested in our stuff and then gave a business card to our faculty lead… That was really cool.” Justice said the man was working with a Congressional committee to build a coalition of schools. The schools would help lead the forefront of aerospace development in the US in the next 10 to 20 years.
One student, Gabi Miller, received, “on the spot recognition” for her design of the active cooling system. She is enjoying her first time at the competition as co-team lead. This Fall, she is Clark Aerospace’s first female team lead.
The students spent a lot of time in the middle of the desert with the sun beating down on them. Every so often “hydrate” sounded from the announcer. With nothing for miles around and a controlled air space, this space is perfect for launching rockets and is the reason the competition is held in New Mexico at Spaceport America.
Parking was grouped together. After that came the lines of canopies where college Aerospace teams huddled under the shade to work on their rockets, getting ready for launch.
Clark Aerospace rocket on the launch pad. It takes time to set it up and make sure everything is ready to go. Anything that goes wrong means your rocket is sitting on a hot launch pad while other’s launch and you wait for the next round. Heat can cause failures. Photo by Josh Kohler
Beyond the canopies was the med tent, the canopies of sponsors and,a little farther, the tent of the safety crews that oversaw rocket recovery. About a mile away were the launching areas for rockets.
On the morning of the launch most of the students had gotten around one hour of sleep.
“Fly straight, fly safe,” said the announcer. “I think that’s everybody’s mantra here today.”
When Clark Aerospace’s name was called over the PA everyone got out their devices to record. Keith Stansbury, Clark Aerospace adviser grinned and paced as he watched his students faces.
The few students allowed closer to the launch site joined in on the count down, “10… 9… 8…” After “1”, there was a pause as everyone held their breath. The rocket flew beautifully for a few seconds before there was a catastrophic failure.
A part of the rocket appeared and spiraled upwards, leaving a trail of smoke behind it. Pieces fell, but a large part of the body survived and landed safely in the desert, away from spectators.
The launch did not go as hoped. The students expressed sorrow, disappointment and frustration. They talked about what could have gone wrong. Justice’s arms dropped and head hung. He said he might have caused the failure.
Raphael Torres and Gabi Miller, co-team leads both encouraged him saying there was no way to know for sure until the rocket was recovered. Despite the failure at launch, Stansbury said he was absolutely tickled with how well the students did this year in the competition.
After falling asleep standing up, on the ground and in camping chairs the Clark Aerospace suddenly sprang from the shade and headed towards their rocket after it had been recovered. Surrounding the back of a minivan, they inspected the remains and talked over what they were seeing.
Relief was expressed by all. The malfunction was not something they had poorly designed, manufactured or assembled. The motor was the cause of the explosion. Some teams build their motors. This team purchased theirs from a company whose motors had always been reli- able in the past.
“In this case, it blew up like a pipe bomb,” Torres said. “Which is very unsafe.”
Torres said they learned from the experience and plan to conduct different kinds of tests on next year’s motors, before the competition. Chanslor Ruth said he really liked seeing the team work together last minute. Difficulties led to long days and nights working in hotel rooms to finish a variety of tasks.
“I learned a lot about how things go wrong in a project,” he said.
Instead of giving up on a project Ruth said, “the ability to make a new plan and keep it on track is a really important thing that I never really knew before.”
Memorable moments came in many forms, but two that stood out to Mike Herlein and the payload team was being interviewed live. Over 300 online viewers watched and asked questions about his payload design. Steven Arbuckle, Kierce Matson and Malcolm Anderson were able to demonstrate their computer coding skills.
They built a program that receives information from the payload and tracks its location. Officials from the Spaceport America Cup were extremely impressed. At the banquet Saturday evening the payload team received an honorable mention.
The same official said, “They blew my socks off.”
Keith Stansbury, program adviser who was scheduled to retire after the trip, said he will miss the students the most and teared up over their successes as they came during the trip.
“The saddest part is when we all disperse at the airport,” he said. “There will be a hole inside us that will never be able to be filled.”