The Rocket Challenge

A red beach ball hangs from the ceiling 40 feet above a baby pool filled with styrofoam packing peanuts.

crudely drawn red rocket

A dozen student engineers wearing hard hats and holding walkie talkies pace the cement floor of Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center. Two of them fiddle with a laptop computer. Wires stretch from the computer to velocity sensors on either side of the pool. A handful of students and professors watch from the bleachers. The countdown begins.

10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ...

The ball wobbles in the air on its way down. This is just a test. "They're measuring drag and acceleration," explains Tim Wheeler, a research associate in the College of Engineering. The real drop will take place at Wallop's Flight Facility, Virginia, in May 1999, when the students release a similar sphere from a rocket. The sphere will contain equipment to measure atmospheric temperature. The rocket will be the product of two years of their work as part of SPIRIT: Student Projects Involving Rocket Investigation Techniques.

SPIRIT, funded by NASA, provides students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with rocket design and construction. At Penn State, 50 students have been working with faculty and NASA professionals in six areas: structures, power and wiring, experiments, publicity, telemetry, and theory and data analysis. In an accompanying one credit class, offered through the Science, Technology, and Society program in the College of Engineering, they learn the basics of rocket science. Most of the students are engineering majors, but students from the College of Communications are also involved in writing press releases and filming a documentary of the project. Wheeler is the course leader and the rocket's payload manager.

crudely drawn green rocket

"In the middle of the night I wake up sweating," he says. "The research contract that NASA usually awards for a rocket this size is for one year. We've got two years, but we're doing it with 40 amateurs, not professionals."

The rocket consists of two parts. The two stage motor contains the fuel and fins that stabilize the rocket in flight. After the launch, the motor is detached from the payload, the second part of the rocket. The payload carries experiment instrumentation that will measure atmospheric temperature. "The entire rocket will be 30 feet high and will weigh 2500 pounds," says Keith Soldavin, a senior electrical engineering major. "We're in the design stage right now."

In an engineering design lab, the power and wiring group looks at a blueprint of the circuits that will power the rocket and control its timing. The payload control board sits in a heavy metallic suitcase. Freshman Jeff Huber holds the yellow "umbi" (for umbilical cord) that will stretch from the rocket to the suitcase and supply power until the rocket is launched. "Remember the movie Apollo 13 when they showed the room before the launch with all the monitors? We'll be doing sort of the same thing except we've only got this suitcase and we're just monitoring current, voltage and temperature," says Huber.

crudely drawn purple rocket

Paul Kaster, another senior electrical engineering student, explains telemetry systems to the other students in the class. "Telemetry is just an intimidating sounding word for what happens when you turn your television on," he says. "The onboard system is made up of an encoder and a transmitter. We'll be taking the output from the equipment on the rocket and converting it into something usable." The rocket will be equipped with antennas to transmit data from the temperature experiments to a computer on the ground.

"This could be the beginning of multiple semester design courses," says Wheeler.

"I want them to think like the rocket, to visualize the rocket pad when all hell breaks loose, the noise and vibration, then deathly silence," says Wheeler. "There's real tension. You want to get as close as you can when it goes up; but it's so violent. You want to run away, but you want to stay and watch it—like a car wreck.

crudely drawn rainbow rocket

"What I want to know," Wheeler says, "is what keeps these kids coming back? Why do they devote so much time and energy to a one credit class?" He answers his own question: "These kids are fired up."

Paul Kaster, Keith Sodavin, and Jeff Huber are electrical engineering majors in the College of Engineering. Tim Wheeler is the payload manager and a research associate in the College of Engineering, 319 Electrical Engineering East, University Park, PA, 16802; 8148635403; Jack Mitchell, Ph.D., is principle investigator and professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering, 328 Electrical Engineering East; 8652359; Charles Croskey, Ph.D., is a coinvestigator and professor of electrical engineering, 304 Electrical Engineering East; 8652357; Students from SUNYGeneseo and Lincoln University are also participating in the project. SPIRIT is funded by NASA, ECSEL, the College of Engineering , and Lockheed Martin.

Last Updated September 01, 1998