Images courtesy of Cornell Rocketry Team

The rocket “Chewbacca” launches into a flight

February 16, 2016

Students Build and Launch Rockets for NASA Competition

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Space Jam isn’t just a popular ’90s movie.

It’s also the name of the Cornell Rocketry Team’s 2016 rocket, which will fly in this year’s NASA Student Launch Competition.

The rocketry team is one of Cornell’s newest student engineering project teams, and is the only project team involved in designing and creating rockets. Formerly begun as Students for the Exploration and Development of Space in 2012, it became CRT in the 2013-2014 school year.

The primary goal of the team is to design and build a rocket from start to finish that can compete in the NASA Student Launch Competition. The yearly competition is held in April and features college, high-school, and non-academic teams from across America.

In April, CRT will compete at the NASA Student Launch at the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama.

Last year, CRT competed for the first time, placing fourth out of more than 20 colleges. The team’s rocket reached more that 2,900 feet, nearly reaching NASA’s guideline of 3,000 feet.

“That was huge for us … to get anywhere within 100 feet of the target altitude is considered excellent,” said Emma Thomson ’16, team lead.

Cornell Rocketry Team members assemble the rocket at the competition last year in Huntsville, Alabama.

Images courtesy of Cornell Rocketry Team

Cornell Rocketry Team members assemble the rocket at the competition last year in Huntsville, Alabama.

The entire process of designing and building a rocket takes quite a bit of effort — about 8 months, to be precise. With members meeting 12 to 15 hours per week, that’s about…

“180 hours, at least, per semester,” Thomson said.

While this may seem like a long time, the team actually takes less time than usual to make the rocket

“In the real world, it might take 5 years or more to build a rocket, we get to go through the entire process every year,” said Connor Dempsey ’17, co-team lead.

Starting in early fall semester, NASA gives out basic constraints for a new rocket. The team’s job is to design a rocket that fits those constraints.

Teams must meet deadlines throughout the months preceding the competition. For example, all teams submit a preliminary design review in November and then a more fleshed out, critical design review in January.

“We also give ourselves internal projects,” Dempsey said. “Last year we built everything to go to competition. This year, since we had a much better feel for how to do it, one of our electrical team leads took the initiative to look at how to custom print printed circuit boards, which allows us to make our design much smaller.”

Throughout the months preceding the competition, NASA gives teams feedback on how they compare to their competitors.

“We get to hear from actual professionals at NASA who have direct experience with doing this kind of work,” Dempsey said.

CRT is comprised of several sub-teams, each of which specializes in the creation of a particular aspect of the rocket. For example, the “launch pad” team creates the structure that supports the rocket during lift off — which (no surprise here) is called the launch pad.

Another sub-team, called “Comms,” specializes in finding exactly where the rocket lands. CRT usually launches their rockets in cornfields, but finding the rocket can be difficult.

“You can’t just rely on your eyesight,” Thomson said.

The Cornell Rocketry Team presents their designs at the NASA Student Launch Rocket Fair at last year's competition.

Images courtesy of Cornell Rocketry Team

The Cornell Rocketry Team presents their designs at the NASA Student Launch Rocket Fair at last year’s competition.

Anything from wind drift to contact with the ground can affect where the rocket lands and whether the team can detect its location. Yet finding the rocket is critical to succeeding in the competition.

“In the past we’ve had issues [with finding the rocket], so now we’ve been working on developing a couple of different tracking methods,” Dempsey said.

Team members are creating a graphical user interface that can help locate the rocket.

According to Thomson and Dempsey, CRT uses computing software such as SolidWorks and Matlab to both design the rocket and to create robotics features necessary for the rocket to launch.

“Even though we’re called the Cornell Rocketry Team, more than half of our competition is all of the robotics that have to happen to get our rocket ready to launch,” Thomson said.

Recruiting for CRT happens in the beginning of both fall and spring semesters. Importantly, CRT doesn’t just consist of engineers. As a large part of launching a rocket requires managing team finances, CRT includes a business sub-team. The importance of teamwork in designing and creating a rocket is not lost on Dempsey and Thompson.

“There are so many systems that interlock with each other, that if we didn’t work well, we wouldn’t be able to come up with the finished project,” Thomson said.

Both Dempsey and Thomson said they intend to work in the aerospace industry after graduation.

“If you talked to a lot of people on the team, working at NASA would be a dream come true,” Thomson said.