Countdown to Competition: WURocketry test launches annual rocket ahead of NASA competition

| Junior Scene Editor
(Courtesy of David Ha)

Preparing for the NASA Student Launch Challenge, the WURocketry team drove to Elsberry, Missouri this past weekend to launch their student-created rocket, WashUWocket.

Starting over the summer, the team has been designing, building, and constructing their annual rocket to participate in a competition that puts their engineering skills to practice by solving a unique set of challenges set by NASA’s University Student Launch Initiative. Simulating a real rocket launch, the team picks a height between 4,000 and 6,000 feet to reach based on calculations and predictions made by the team.

“We try to match it while also following a large range of engineering requirements for safety and design. We also have a secondary goal, which is the payload challenge. This year’s is a design challenge where we deploy a payload in flight when given a signal by the NASA people in Huntsville, Alabama, and have it land safely without a parachute,” Chief Marketing Officer and third-year dual degree student Mikayla Jenkins said.

Waking up at 7:30 a.m. on March 23, I left St. Louis and drove to Elsberry to view the test launch in person. After arriving at the location, I was greeted by the leaders of the nearly 60-person team. The team included multiple subteams, such as avionics, recovery, and payload teams. 

“People are designing the rocket using CAD, computer-aided design. We’re coming up with ideas for software because we hit the ground running in August, when we give the proposal. The first semester was a lot of finishing the design and making it something that we can really build. Later in the second semester, you’re trying to actually launch a rocket and work out all the bugs and get the payload working, because the payload is quite a difficult challenge and you don’t know about the specifics until August. So a lot of people dedicate a lot of their time to figure it out after classes, trying to get code working, trying to get like mechanisms done, go to the machine shop on the weekends, or make progress on the drone,” Chief of Mechanical Engineering and senior William Urdahl said.

Heading into March 23, the team was hoping for a successful launch and landing where the rocket would go through all the steps required on the actual day of competition. 

“I really enjoy finding cool solutions to complicated problems and coming up with elegant design. Trying to make a system that will work and accomplish this very complicated goal of launching a rocket, dropping a quadcopter and recovering it, it’s really cool and a very complicated thing, but solving those problems is awesome,” Urdahl said.

Although previous launches were not successful, the team was hopeful about and excited to show off their rocket design.

“I have really enjoyed the launches I’ve attended. It’s been really great to interact with other subteams, and learn about the rocket and how it all fits together. Personally I’m feeling alright [about the rocket launch]. Generally, the team vibe seems to be a little bit urgent, because we have an upcoming deadline and a couple of key aspects of the mission to solidify before the Huntsville competition,” first-year Nate Sapp said.

With a targeted altitude of 5,120 feet, the team’s rocket would use a Class L motor with up to 5,120 Newton seconds of impulse and would fire for a few seconds. Through the use of onboard avionics, the team would be able to track the height and velocity of the rocket. Mid-flight, a quadcopter, this year’s payload, would be ejected and turned on. Approximately 600 feet above the ground, the main parachute would be deployed, allowing the rocket to land safely.

On the day of the launch, the rocket took flight, reaching around 5,000 feet, and began its descent, enduring intense wind conditions. While the drogue parachute ejected and deployed successfully, the team on the ground could tell the rocket was landing too fast, as the main parachute had not fully inflated. As the rocket landed, a fin broke and became lodged in the mud.

“The main damage is just to the one fin. As a whole, it’s much much better than it could have been. We’re going to be looking at the videos to figure out exactly what happened. It could have just been an error in the folding of the parachute. In that case, it’s an easy fix. There’s a lot of that post-mortem analysis, but it’s just a part of being an engineering team where anytime you fly something, success or failure,” junior and Recovery and Propulsion Lead Tomas Collado said.

Despite not being successful enough yet to qualify the team for the Huntsville competition in April, the team remains focused on getting WUWocket ready for their competition. The damage appeared to be easily repairable and the launch had been more successful than previous launches. With an upcoming deadline, the team has time for one more launch.

“It is an interesting time because our competition is in three weeks, and we are required to have a successful vehicle flight by March 31. So pretty much our only option is to rebuild, do the easy fixes, and fly again next weekend. So we’re looking at options for a flight before then. If we don’t fly again, or if we fly again and we don’t have a successful flight, we won’t be able to attend our competition in Huntsville that we’ve been working towards all year,” president and senior Maeve Lomax said.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 3/27/24 to fix a minor error.

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