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NASA and UNT team partner up to launch full-scale rocket

NASA and UNT team partner up to launch full-scale rocket

Energy engineering seniors Joel Thompson, Jessica Hampton, Luis Gonzalez, and Lindsey Smith stand for a photo.

NASA and UNT team partner up to launch full-scale rocket
January 30
18:25 2017

Haley Yates | Staff Writer

Four mechanical and energy engineering seniors have created UNT’s first team to participate in NASA’s University Student Launch Initiative, where the students will launch and recover a full-scale rocket among 60 other teams from 23 states across the country.

Jessica Hampton heard about NASA’s USLI competition in high school, and knowing she had to do a senior design project in college, she said her goal was to start a team to participate. She proposed the idea to friend Karen Lindsey Smith, and after deciding Hampton would be the team leader, they gathered Luis Gonzalez, who they knew was skilled with computers and programming, and created Team Rocket.

Joel Thompson was a last-minute addition to the group and was named the safety officer based on his skills and abilities. He heard about the team while on a trip with Gonzalez and Smith, and was immediately interested in becoming involved.

“I’ve always been interested in getting into aerospace, and at UNT we don’t exactly have a robust aerospace or aircraft-oriented engineering program,” Thompson said. “I didn’t feel like I had anything that would impress a future aerospace employer. So when they mentioned NASA rockets, and possibly having Lockheed as a mentor, I was like ‘where do I sign up?’”

Preparing for take off

In order to participate in the program, each team has to draft a written proposal, giving an outline of the components going into building a full-scale rocket, and proving to NASA that the team is capable of crafting one that will go up and come down in a designated area. They also had to provide mitigations for everything that could go wrong, like if the university were to shut down access to their laboratory.

In October, Team Rocket scored 85 percent at the preliminary design review, where they outlined safety protocols, budget expenses, a timeline and a summary of how they will attempt to protect the fragile payload. This particular payload requires the team to create a bay that can house a random four-ounce object, and make sure it survives the launch and landing. This method mimics the popular egg-drop concept many did in high school.

Over winter break, the team completed the critical design review where they launched and successfully recovered a sub-scale model of their rocket. On Mar. 6, they will complete the same process with their full-scale competition rocket at the final readiness review. After that, the team has until Apr. 4, to tweak the design for the competition, which will take place at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The group’s goal is to use carbon fiber to construct the rocket, which will hopefully be funded by one of the team’s sponsors, Raytheon. But carbon fiber presents its own design challenges.

A photo of the second sub-scale rocket taking off. Courtesy

“There’s an art to it, and if you do it wrong, things can go south real quick,” Thompson said. “The rocket could potentially tear itself apart. We shelved carbon fiber for the sub-scale. Now that we have some time and we’ve been able to re-approach, and we’ve practiced everything, we’re re-exploring [using] it.”

In case the carbon fiber doesn’t work, Thompson said the backup plan is to use a tubing called Blue Tube and tweak the design accordingly.

Getting the help they need

NASA does not provide funding for any teams competing in USLI, leaving it up to students to seek out mentorships and sponsors. Smith said she used her LinkedIn connections to gain sponsorships, reaching out to places like defense contractor company Raytheon, and aerospace company Lockheed Martin. The team also gained partnerships with the local National Association of Rocketry chapter and Dallas Area Rocket Society.

“My Lockheed connection basically transferred like 30 different places in the company until I found a person willing to fund it $12,000,” Smith said. “I’m persistent. Needless to say, I worked my butt off using my resources to get us going.”

Thomas Allsup at Anida Technologies is also sponsoring the team, giving them access to his machine shop, where the four have been using a CNC mill – a robotic arm with a cutting tool that can design specifications for the model. The team used the shop for their sub-scale model and plan to use it for the full-scale model as well.

The team’s mentor, George Sprague, is the outreach coordinator at Dallas Area Rocket Association and has been mentoring for 15 years, mostly with high school students participating in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, a smaller scale rocket launch competition.

He said the biggest differences when working with Team Rocket are that they have more experience and knowledge than the high school students he is used to and it’s a much smaller group.

“There’s an old saying, too many cooks spoil the broth,” Sprague said. “One advantage this team has is being a cohesive and small group. They can get in contact with each other and me easily and fixes can be made quickly.”

NASA requires mentors to be hands-off, so Sprague’s main role is to offer help with planning building techniques, helping find parts and explaining why and how building methods are used. Most importantly, he holds a high power level three license that gives him purchasing power to get materials the team needs access to, and Sprague has given the students access to a launch site.

Team Rocket has been applying engineering concepts they have learned at UNT. The group finished their senior design one class a month ahead of schedule and is four months ahead of their senior design two class.

“NASA’s schedule is pushing us so far ahead because they are treating us like actual engineering employees,” Gonzalez said. “We’re having lots of fun and learning a lot.”

Featured Image: Energy engineering seniors Joel Thompson, Jessica Hampton, Luis Gonzalez and Lindsey Smith stand for a photo. Courtesy

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North Texas Daily

North Texas Daily

The North Texas Daily is the official student newspaper of the University of North Texas, proudly serving UNT and the Denton community since 1916.

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1 Comment

  1. WardDurossette
    WardDurossette February 01, 10:01

    If they had a Go Fund Me I would donate…

    Reply to this comment

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