Article: 2143
By Peter Schurke April 2010

Well, it’s been a great two days of rockets at Bragg Farms here in Alabama.

Saturday, the USLI launches were marked by many good flights, punctuated by some that Dave Woodard would call “great flights” (bad flights that happen to somebody else). Several teams spilled their main ‘chutes at apogee and had very long recovery walks. Two ended up in the trees a half mile south of the launch zone. One (might have been two…it’s getting hard to remember at this point) shredded on the way up–including the second to last one in which the J1299N motor apparently exceeded Warp nine….

Several times after a payload like “measuring pressure and temperature as a function of altitude” or “comparison of the performance characteristics of several commercial altimeters” was announced I’d find one of my students standing next to me quietly saying “is that all they’ve got? really? These are supposed to be college teams!”

It took most of the day for all the USLI teams to get themselves prepped, through RSO, out to the pad, fly, and recover.

We got back to the hotel, cleaned up, and headed to the US Space and Rocket Center where we had our banquet sitting underneath the last remaining Saturn V rocket. Pretty darn impressive. They did a really nice job restoring it! My students clean up real nice too. We’ll have to post pictures once we get back!

Saturday evening once we got back from the banquet, the students did as much prep work as they could so as to reduce the amount of thinking necessary once we got to the field. They got their recovery harnesses prepped, swapped in new batteries on all their electronics, repaired the wire they sliced by accident while swapping in new batteries on all their electronics, and generally did all the other “scut work” that one doesn’t want to have to remember on launch day.

Sunday morning, we caught a shuttle out to the launch field, and the kids set to work immediately upon arrival.

Carl “Tank” Hamilton took our proulsion lead over to the energetics tent to retrieve our motor (we sent our casing down a couple of weeks ago and NASA provided and built the motor for us), e-matches and bp.

I functioned as Liza’s third and fourth hands as she prepped up the charges, that (and reminding myself constantly to back off, shut up, and let them do their jobs without any interference from me) was pretty much the extent of my involvement.

One hour after we arrived at the field the rocket was completely built and ready for Carl’s pre-RSO grilling.

One of the last points of discussion was the ballasting of the rocket. We shipped it to Huntsville weighing in about 150 g too light for its intended final ballasted mass. However, the 8-9 mph winds from the North had the students thinking there was a significant chance they would lose altitude to weathercocking, so they decided not to add the final bit of ballast.

Carl took them through his own version of the RSO inspection, which turned out to be more rigorous than the actual RSO inspection. The kids ran the preflight portion of their master checklist one more time, and headed for the RSO tent to get the process started for real.

>From that point on, most of it was captured on the stream feed. We had to wait in the holding area while they got off the first two launches, then went out to the range to set up.

Jim Wilkerson was our pad manager (Thanks, Jim!!!) and took us out to pad 61. The kids had mentioned to Jim on Saturday that they wanted to launch from pad 51 so that they could claim to have “launched a rocket from area 51”. Problem was, they’d taken down rack 5 overnight, so there was no pad 51 anymore. Jim, however, was completely prepared and produced the pad 51 sign, stuck it in front of the 61 and let them take their pictures before removing the sign and restoring normalcy to the pad 61 area.

The kids spun up their gyroscopes on the pad for the very first time, and from 20 feet away where I was standing with the videocamera, it sounded like a VERY angry hornets’ nest had been kicked. The slight differences between the spin rates as they spun up to full speed caused a range of funky harmonics that eventually went away when both reached full spin…but it was almost strangely scary for about two minutes while they were spinning up.

The students closed out their checklists and we got the afforementioned pictures from “area 51” and then cleared back to the holding area to watch our flight.

One of the decisions Jim had made as the pad manager was to angle the flight slightly to the south because the winds from the north had caused the first two rockets to weathercock out over the crowd. Good decision, Jim!

The Cesaroni K635 lit instantly when the LCO pushed the button and the rocket jumped off the pad. A gust of wind weathercocked it just enough to put it straight vertical and it went 5750 feet to apogee.

The drogue came out at apogee with a backup charge a second later. The closest thing the students had to a problem was that they knotted up their harness a little bit. Nothing major…they didn’t even rip out all the z-folds in their harness.

Main came out exactly on schedule at 800′ and the puff of smoke at 700 for the backup charge indicated that every single thing had gone exactly according to the mission plan.

The recovery team (all three students who had electronics to safe, the one with the best camera skills, and Carl) went out to get it once the range openned. One of the NASA folks rushed out there in one of the off-road vehicles because it looked like the rocket was being dragged in the wind–he folded and contained the main ‘chute for us to stop the dragging, then waited to give the girls and the rocket a ride back to camp. Carl and Nat had to walk. Something about them being too big to fit on the ‘Gator and the girls being better looking…

Once back at camp, they got everything cleaned up and organized to take back to the hotel once the launches were over.

About an hour after our launch, Madison West H.S.’s returning team put their rocket into the trees south of the field. Not much of a problem…they had Walston and GPS on it…except that they only brought one MAWD altimeter and the Madison West “new team” needed it for their flight as well. The call went out over the P.A. asking if any other teams would be willing to loan Madison West their altimeter and our kids instantly sprang into action to open up their avionics bay and start extracting our altimeter. Less than three minutes later, Madison West was installing our altimeter into their rocket and getting ready to go fly.

As proud as I was of how well they flew today…that moment meant as much to me as anything on this trip. These are such incredible, wonderful, giving young people that I get to work with!

Madison West’s new team put their rocket up on a staged flight (AT Jsomething something something blue thunder in the booster to a J1299N in the sustainer) that separated at apogee but the drogue did not deploy. Fin can came down in a flat spin all the way to the ground, but our MAWD apparently wasn’t in that section, so it came down nice and gentle–the young ladies and gentlemen from Madison West returned it to us shortly after downloading the data and confirming that it was still in perfect working order.

After the last flight of the day went into the trees (about the fourth such rocket of the day), they gave out the two peer awards. Phelps Academy (Malvern, PA) won best looking rocket (lightning bolt theme airbrushed by a non-SLI student at their school), and THRUST’s “The Blue Moon Crew” (Sheboygan, WI) won most spirited team (They bribed everyone with food–which apparently worked, much to the chagrin of our rocket-scientist-cheerleader!).

We found it more than a little disappointing that even though the universities were supposed to stick around for the SLI launches, only two students from one of the colleges (University of Central Florida) came out. Not even the University of Alabama Huntsville students bothered to come out. The SLI kids could have gotten an opportunity to interact with some of the university students, and the college kids could have learned a few things… [There was only one “failure” launch on Sunday–one team’s drogue did not deploy at apogee and their rocket sustained significant damage when the main openned at high speed. None of the High School/middle school teams had a main out at apogee (we know about shear pins…) None of the High School/middle school teams shredded. More than one NASA person commented that the failure rate is always higher with the USLI teams, even though the SLI vehicles are usually just as complex.]

Now, we’re going hunting for a restaurant that is open on a Sunday night in the Bible Belt to feed these teenagers some dinner before they start deciding to chew Carl’s arm off.

Can’t wait to fly it at FITS!!!

Peter Schurke