JULY 20, 2021 — Billionaires are making news with their competition to open space travel to private citizens. The race for space is in full throttle for private companies, world governments and even college students. Months of hard work were realized in a couple of minutes when UTSA’s Aeronautics and Rocket Club (ARC) took part in the recent 2021 Spaceport America Cup.
The Spaceport Cup is the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering competition. The event is typically held every June in New Mexico. The Spaceport experience is valuable to helping students prepare for aspirations in the aerospace industry. Due to the pandemic, Spaceport held launch competitions at regional sites. The UTSA team, comprised from a mix of engineering students, transported their 12-foot two-stage rocket, named Acme Co., just outside of Houston, for the Texas area blast-off. Acme Co. is a nod to the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon series where the coyote used an Acme Co. rocket to try and catch the Road Runner.
The UTSA Aeronautics and Rocket Club secures its rocket onto the launchpad at the Spaceport America Cup regional site outside of Houston.
The UTSA team secured Acme Co. onto the launch pad and nervously waited. Time for countdown. The main engine ignited and, in an instant, blasted high in the sky. The booster separated. Time for the second stage engine. It didn’t ignite. Still, the rocket’s upper stage flew almost 3,500 feet. Most importantly, Acme Co. returned safely to earth, similar to the ethos of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company designing its rockets for reusability. Looking past the ignition failure of the second stage, the ARC members considered the launch a success and a moment they’ll cherish forever.
“The experience was a mix of excitement, nerves, slight disappointment from the second stage engine not lighting and then massive relief, seeing all of the parachutes come out,” said Talley Barnes, a mechanical engineering set to graduate in spring 2022. “I think our club’s collective feeling was we are excited to give this another try. We really want to see this thing have its perfect flight.”
For Spaceport, ARC entered Acme Co. into the 10,000 ft. launch category. Data analysis of the maiden flight found a software malfunction caused the second stage engine failure. Despite the second booster not igniting, ARC was able to walk away with some bragging rights. Many of the other rocket teams from Texas either dropped out or didn’t launch higher than UTSA.
“The only other Texas team that placed ahead of us was the University of Houston. We can also successfully say we were the No. 1 team overall out of the UT System,” Talley said.
“I think one thing this competition did was it continued to cement our club’s reputation as one of UTSA’s premier hands-on project-oriented student groups,” said Gabriel Longoria, a mechanical engineering student set to graduate in 2023.
The journey to this year’s Spaceport America Cup began in the early part of the fall 2020 semester. Juggling college courses during the uncertain times of the pandemic was one challenge the UTSA team overcame. Add the huge learning curve of figuring out how to build a rocket, and you need a group with the right stuff to see this project through.
“We were like, hey, let’s try to air start a motor. Let's try building a two-stage rocket,” said Adam Knippa, a mechanical engineering student set to graduate in 2023. “Going into it, the amount of knowledge that we learned was just so immense. I feel like we've grown a lot.”
“When the competition got pushed online because of COVID, you could tell team morale went down the drain, especially after going to New Mexico was cancelled,” added Patrick Cavanagh, a computer engineering student who will graduate in the fall 2021 semester. “I think once we got over that, we committed to launching this thing no matter what it takes and that’s when things started to come together.”
During the spring 2021 semester, lab restrictions started to ease. Being able to access the state-of-the-art Makerspace in the UTSA Science and Engineering Building was the turning point for ARC. They took full advantage of the Makerspace, along with faculty expertise for enabling the team to build the final rocket components.
“We did most of the construction in the Makerspace. David Kuenstler, instrument mechanic, was extremely helpful while guiding us in how to use the equipment to get the job done,” Gabriel said. “There were also many other faculty, mentors and students who we’d like to thank because we could not have finished the rocket without their support.”
An important mentor was Jim Jarvis, a master rocketry enthusiast located in Austin. Jarvis worked closely with the team by consulting on every aspect of the vehicle design. This was the team’s first attempt at building a two-stage launch vehicle. The ARC Club members credit Jarvis, with his wealth of rocketry knowledge and experience as crucial to the overall success of the project, from initial design to final launch.
More assistance came from the UTSA community. The university gave the club $2,000 in seed money. The team also established a Launch UTSA crowdfunding campaign to raise the rest of the dollars. Students, family and friends contributed $2,090, which was slightly over the goal.
“Acme Co. has a lot of crowdfunded pieces on it. The fins have names of everybody who donated on it. There are decals on the booster and sustainer for people who paid for that,” Patrick said. “We're going to send pics to show our backers their names are a real blast.”
“As a group, we were competent enough to come up with a design and see it through all the way to completion, even through COVID and the other adversities we faced,” Talley added. “We wanted to prove to ourselves that we could set this goal and do what was necessary to reach it.”
During the 2021-2022 school year, ARC will be taking the knowledge from this project and encouraging all interested members to obtain their Level 1 High Power Rocketry Certifications. ARC is still weighing its options on whether to compete in Spaceport America Cup 2022. Either way, the opportunity to learn how to build a rocket through UTSA gives them the confidence and experience to pursue potential careers in the growing aerospace industry.
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