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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

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SDSU's Rocket Group successfully launched and recovered Lady Elizabeth, reaching 13,205 feet with their student designed and built rocket. Video: SDSU Rocket Project, Video Editing: Melissa Porter

Blastoff! Rocket Launch Zooms 13,000 Feet

Aerospace engineering students celebrate the results of diligent designing, building and repeat testing.
By Padma Nagappan

On a clear, cold Saturday morning in February in the Mojave Desert, there was a palpable sense of excitement tempered by nervous tension. A group of aerospace engineering students were putting the final touches in place to get ready for the moment they had meticulously planned for and worked hard on for months — launching Lady Elizabeth, the dual cryogenic liquid bi-propellant rocket they designed and built from scratch.
The Rocket Project is a student run club at San Diego State University where students passionate about aerospace pool their talents. They organize themselves much like a start-up to work on design, experimenting, building, testing, retooling and retesting rocket components and systems, gearing up for the big launch. 
On February 1, about 40 eager students from the 80-member group drove from San Diego out to the desert to launch their collective brainchild. After more than a year of preparation, this would be the second attempt — they had tried back in November but the recovery avionics glitched — and they were determined to make it a successful launch. 
“To say we were nervous is an understatement,” said Marcus Reed, Rocket Project treasurer. “You work on a project for years, and there’s a lot of things that could go wrong. But we knew we had a very good product, so we wanted to make sure it did well. We went out there 10 times for testing, because as engineers we want to develop the right criteria.”
Rocket Project president Paul Fuerte agreed. “You can’t let the excitement take over or you’ll have launch fever and things could go wrong if you’re rushing around.”
Everyone took their places, the countdown began, and the blastoff happened. The team cheered as Lady Elizabeth zoomed into the sky for a good distance, then tilted and made her way back to earth, landing 1.5 miles away. An onboard camera showed a sweep of the sandy landscape dotted with scraggly shrubs as she descended, landing gently on the branches of a bare tree. A GPS signal guided the recovery crew to the landing spot.
The team’s excitement skyrocketed not just because they had successfully recovered the rocket, but also because they had reached 13,205 feet in altitude, a new high for the SDSU club. The students, who track rocket launches elsewhere, believe this is a record for a student built liquid bi-propellant rocket. 
“Once we saw the launch, it was relief, excitement, and we felt proud of ourselves,” Fuerte said. 
Reed added, “It took us a long time to work out all the kinks and to see it succeed was amazing.”
From launch to touchdown, it was over in under three minutes. The ascent took about a minute, the descent two minutes.
Back to drawing board

Lady Elizabeth returned mostly intact. And the team of dedicated engineers is back at work, improving on their efforts for the next launch.
“The bow tail actually burned off with this launch, so we will be working on preventing that from happening,” said Kendall Miller, the group’s secretary. A sophomore who joined the club as a freshman and worked on the structural team, she has experience with the lower airframe — the bottom part of the rocket — and will contribute to its redesign. 
Fuerte and Reed, both seniors, chose to study at SDSU mainly so they could join the rocket project and get experience with space engineering. On graduation, they hope to land jobs in the space or satellite industries.
Rocket Project was founded in 2003 by five engineering students and has grown exponentially since then. The group’s previous launch, with a different set of students, was in 2012 when their rocket, the Galactic Aztec, reached 12,500 feet. That rocket used liquid oxygen and kerosene as propellants, had a wider body and an engine sourced from surplus sales of 1950s and 1960s era equipment. 
The Lady Elizabeth, on the other hand, was originally designed for the FAR/Mars competition, and used cryogenic (super cooled) liquid methane and oxygen, or methalox. It has a regenerative engine, meaning the chilled methane is used to cool down the engine so it can be used multiple times and have a longer burn time without damage, as well as custom designed innovations the students experimented with, to improve performance.
Challenges mastered

During the design-build process, Murphy’s Law often prevailed. But the rocketeers tackled the challenges with renewed zeal, solving problems as they arose, with workarounds and creative thinking.
“A couple times the methane ran out, so the chamber had burns because there was nothing flowing through the vents,” Fuerte recalled. 
Reed recounted how they went through multiple iterations to find the right valves because some types would freeze from the super cooled methalox. They experimented with different materials until they figured out using a fiberglass interface between the valve and the actuator would prevent freezing. 
They also worked on getting the right pressure without overheating the engine, and 3-D printed custom parts, including nozzles. 
Rocket Project is supported mostly by philanthropic gifts from several friends of the project - Scott Borden and Richard Woodcock - which came at a critical time to purchase materials when previous funding ran short. Woodcock made gifts in the name of his late wife, Elizabeth Jackson Woodcock, a scientist after whom the rocket is named. Initial funding for the Lady Elizabeth came from the National College Resources Foundation and SDSU alumnus Foster Stanback

The rocket launch also helps launch promising careers for many Aztecs.
“Recruiters love hearing about students’ experience with the project, and many find jobs based on it,” Fuerte said.