“So many things could have gone wrong … just the fact it went up was the most amazing feeling I’ve ever had.”
This is Tushar Singla, a first-year mechanical engineer who joined UC Berkeley’s first competition rocket club — Space Technologies and Rocketry Team, or CalSTAR. On Dec. 3, 2016, the group launched its first rocket into the sky at Snow Ranch Launch Site. All the members had their eyes set on winning the NASA Student Launch competition.
But it didn’t fly the way the team planned.
One rocket crash, many broken parts and several redesigns later, the team finally achieved their end goal: to travel to Huntsville, Alabama, for its competition launch near NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
Before the Launch
CalSTAR was founded in fall 2015 by four students interested in establishing a stronger aerospace community on campus, especially because UC Berkeley currently does not offer an aerospace major. Founding member and campus junior Jordan Covert asked his Human Powered Vehicle team member Avyay Panchapakesan if he was interested in starting a rocket club.
“I was all on board and said ‘Count me in!’ ” Panchapakesan said.
Campus junior Kevin Hsu joined the pair, and together they sent out an ad on Facebook asking for students interested in rockets to join. One of the first people that responded to the ad was co-founder campus junior Adam Huth.
In spring 2016, the team hosted a small model rocketry competition for its members, most of whom did not have a rocketry background. The plan, however, was to join the NASA Student Launch competition — a high-powered rocketry challenge for schools to launch a rocket one mile in the sky with various different payloads. A payload, according to Panchapakesan, is any kind of experiment or additional package the rocket flies.
“(Student Launch) was created to help introduce students to what engineers do during the design process,” said Katie Wallace, Student Launch Initiative Project Manager. “It helps prepare students in our future workforce for what we are doing in NASA: to think of creative challenges and go about solving those.”
Wallace said the goal for every team was to have a successful launch, though it usually involves two to three mishaps along the way. The timeline of the competition follows five review phases: preliminary design review, critical design review, flight readiness review, launch readiness review and post-launch assessment review.
Designing the Rocket
According to Panchapakesan, the team decided to choose the most “challenging and rewarding” payload project out of the three choices teams were given. CalSTAR had to create a rocket that would fly one mile in the air and eject a payload that would land upright after detecting three square colored tarps on the ground.
This led to the team proposing various designs for the airframe, or mechanical structure, electronics and payload. The team also focused on recovery and safety aspects of the rocket, like the parachute system for when the rocket fell back to the ground.
The first successful iteration the team flew was called URSA Minor, a two-thirds subscale of the rocket they would fly in the competition. It stood about 5 feet 6 inches tall with a four-inch diameter and contained all parts of the rocket that would be implemented in the final design except for the payload.
The team now began to create the full scale rocket, URSA Major, for its flight readiness review, which would include the payload. The final structure of the vehicle was built with fiberglass and blue tube, two strong materials meant to keep the rocket from breaking apart. The upper nose cone of the rocket consisted of the payload, a camera and three legs and parachutes that would release when the payload detached.
The launch plan was for a small drogue parachute to separate when the rocket reached one mile to help slow and stabilize the rocket’s descent. When it reached a 1,000 feet, the main parachute would release to slow the rocket even further and the camera would detect the tarps laid out on the ground. At 750 feet, two parachutes and legs would release as the payload detaches from the rest of the rocket.
As the payload fell, the third parachute and leg would release. Because of its low center of gravity, the payload would flip over in the air and have its legs face toward the ground. With the help of the parachutes, it would land safely upright.
“NASA had never seen anything like that before,” Hunt said. “So it made it difficult for them to judge how safe it would be.”
Wallace said she remembers out of the 60 different teams reviewed, CalSTAR’s design was “interesting” and “unique” because of the three parachute system in the lander and the 3-D printed legs to keep it standing upright.
David Raimondi, CalSTAR’s mentor and president of the Livermore Unit of the National Association of Rocketry, said the team created this design all on its own, only using Raimondi as a sounding board for their ideas.
Problem After Problem
CalSTAR planned to fly the full scale rocket with the payload in February before the March 6 deadline. Yet, they did not foresee that for the first time in a few years, California would have rain. According to Panchapakesan, if it rained three days before the launch day, the launch site would not allow them to fly the rocket.
The final weekend before the deadline, the rain finally let up and gave the team an opportunity to launch their rocket. The group set up their rocket the previous night before heading out to Snow Ranch.
“But on the morning of, the flight people working on electronics said, ‘Sorry, the switch isn’t working,’ ” Panchapakesan said. “None of our three switches (to release the legs) are working so we can’t launch the payload.”
This forced CalSTAR to ask for an extension and NASA gave them until March 27 to present their flight readiness review. The team spent the following week redesigning the payload system so the switches would be able release the legs properly.
On the second full-scale launch date March 11, the rocket was ready to go on the launch pad. But when the team fired the rocket, it spun for a few seconds on the launch pad before dragging the launch rail — a 14-foot steel pole meant to keep the rocket standing vertically — into the sky.
The rocket reached 100 feet in the air and began to fly horizontally, causing the nose cone to fall off and release a parachute and leg out from the payload. The parachute got caught in the rocket’s flame trail and the rocket drove itself into the ground several feet away from the launch pad.
“So we go over there to check it out,” Panchapakesan said. “And our payload that we spent months poring over has been completely obliterated.”
Dismayed, the group members drove home that night, wondering what they could do next now that their rocket was destroyed. They decided to build it from scratch again.
CalSTAR hustled to build the parts for the rocket two weeks before the extension deadline. The rain started to fall again, so the team drove six hours to the Mojave Desert to fly its recreated rocket. But once again, the team faced another obstacle.
“The computer decided to stop working and just reboot itself without end,” Panchapakesan said. “The rocket can’t fly the payload again.”
Disappointed, the club sent in their extension review and prepared for the competition in Huntsville on April 8.
CalSTAR did not expect to NASA to allow them to fly its payload because the team was never able to fly it before the final deadline.
To their surprise, the National Association Rocketry officer said he hoped to see them fly the payload that weekend because of the number of precautions the team took to make sure the payload would not shoot toward the ground like a speeding bullet.
Yet, on the day of the launch, the same computer problem that happened in the Mojave Desert happened again and the team could not fix the issue. In the end, the club launched the rocket without the payload, essentially decreasing the chances for them to do well in the competition.
“It was my biggest struggle,” said Jacob Posner, electrical team lead. “The (computer) fail(ed) every launch even though the stuff did work the night before.”
Despite the numerous disappointments, Singla said he is glad to have been on this journey with his team and they have all grown closer together by working through the challenges and difficulties as a team.
CalSTAR looks forward to next year’s Student Launch competition and building a name for itself on campus to create a stronger aerospace community.
Hunt said he dreams five to 10 years from now, there could be an aerospace major because of CalSTAR’s efforts. According to Panchapakesan, if there is enough support, the university would know that there is a community interest in establishing an aerospace program.
For Singla, his goal is for UC Berkeley to be one of the first universities to launch a rocket into space — a feat that would require a liquid or hybrid motor used in competitions like the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition.
Outreach is also a major priority of the team, said Carly Prichett, a third-year engineering major. She said it is important to reach out to students and inspire them at a young age.
She also wants to improve the diversity and background experience of team members, such as reaching out to both STEM and non-STEM majors. Pritchett would like to recruit more women as well, improving the gender imbalance so the team is “not just a boy’s club.”
Although the final stages of the competition are almost over, CalSTAR still plans to launch the rocket in one last attempt — with the payload this time.
“It’s for our gratification because we spent so much time on it. It would be a waste to not see it launch again,” said Grant Posner, safety team lead. “We want to see our baby fly.”
Contact Gibson Chu at [email protected].