Vandy Aerospace Club gets big lift from launch win




Vanderbilt’s Aerospace Club recently won a prestigious altitude contest when its rocket reached a height of 5,264 feet at a launch contest held in late April at a north Alabama farm.

“The corn growing in that field will never taste as sweet as the success of our rocket,” said senior Nathan Grady, a member of Vanderbilt School of Engineering’s Aerospace Club. “That rocket roared off the launch pad as if it knew it was going to win.”


Vanderbilt’s 14-foot rocket fell just 16 feet short of the 1-mile goal (5280 feet), but it soared high enough to win the ‘closest to altitude’ prize, one of the two top prizes in the 2007-2008 NASA-sponsored University Student Launch Initiative (USLI).  The Engineering School’s rocket blew past its closest contender – and nine other rockets – by a margin of a few hundred feet.


All teams were to build rockets and launch them into the air while performing some type of experiment, from measuring vibrations to recording the flight on an infrared camera.  Vanderbilt’s ambitious undertaking was to imbed an airplane into the rocket and release it midair.

“We put together an excellent team this year, and the students gladly took on the challenge of designing a rocket and an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) as the payload,” said A.V. Anilkumar, club adviser and mechanical engineering professor. “They came up with several innovative designs, including the UAV, which was packaged inside the rocket and deployed at a pre-set altitude.”

In addition to Grady, Vanderbilt’s team includes mechanical engineering seniors Glen Bartley, Thomas Folk, Andrew Gould, Chris McMenamin, Brandon Reed, Alex Sobey, Greg Todd, and junior Will Runge.  Professor Anilkumar coaches the team and Robin Midgett, ME department electronics technician, serves as safety officer.  Two rocketry enthusiasts: Vanderbilt engineering alumnus, Russ Bruner, and Manchester, TN, EMT Rodney McMillan, were on site to assist the team.

Two weeks earlier to USLI launch, the Aerospace Club claimed second place in the Team Design category at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Southeastern regional competition at Cape Canaveral, Florida.  The team presented the intricate details of the design of the rocket-deployed UAV at the event.

A blustery launch day

The annual college-level rocket launch competition, sponsored by ATK Launch Systems and managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., attracted 11 university rocket teams to Bragg Farms in nearby Toney on a blustery Saturday in April.

“The weather was not the best for a rocket launch. The wind speed was a little higher than we would normally prefer. That can complicate both the rocket launch and the UAV flight,” said senior Thomas Folk. “However, our rocket design was extremely stable, which helped it to fly straight up, as opposed to some teams whose rockets wavered initially.”

There was no rush to assemble rockets; teams were just excited to launch.  “The teams were friendly and we did lend tools and launch equipment to other teams so they could assemble and fly their rockets,” McMenamin said.

Despite high winds, the USLI competition itself went really smoothly, but it was due to the incredible efforts of everyone on the team during the preceding months.

Glen Bartley said the team was prepared for the wind.

“Our team had tried to launch the previous weekend, also in high wind conditions, and the rocket was unable to take off due to launch pad stability concerns. So the week prior to the launch was dedicated largely to enhancing launch pad stability,” he said.

“We addressed the issue just in time because the high winds at the competition launch would have prevented us from launching successfully if we had not had a failed attempt the previous weekend,” Bartley said.

Chris McMenamin said the wind did affect the UAV flight. “Although the plane did not have the prettiest flight, we were excited because it was ejected from the rocket just as we had expected.”

A soaring win

“It was an intense scene – with a rocket going off at 30 minute intervals,” said Will Bartley. “Then it was our turn to launch and everyone there was watching. I have never been that nervous.

“I was just thinking ‘please take off, please take off…’ when it took off beautifully and hit our desired altitude within 16 feet, the entire team was elated.  A year’s worth of rocket engineering climaxed at that point,” Bartley said.

Andrew Gould said the payload team duty was to figure out how to design the plane, lodge it in the rocket and make sure it ejected.

“Now that it’s done, it seems easy but it did take a whole year to do,“ Gould said. “I grew up being a car nut and then I was into space and jet flights. It’s not really about winning. It’s about doing something that’s never been done before – like getting an airplane out of a rocket.”

Anilkumar said the Vanderbilt team’s feat was impossible to equal by any of the rocket teams there.  Other competing universities were University of Alabama-Huntsville, Auburn, Harding, Utah State, University of North Dakota, Fisk, Missouri University of Science and Technology-Rolla, Mississippi State, Alabama A&M, and College of Menominee Nation in Green Bay, Wis.

The second top prize in the 2007-2008 USLI competition – the overall winner – went to Utah State University.  Teams were judged on papers and presentations during a year-long assessment by a NASA panel to determine the overall winner, announced May 27.

“The Vanderbilt team has been extraordinarily professional, making impressive presentations to wider audiences all year long,” Anilkumar said. “The rocket team presented to the School of Engineering’s alumni council 18 hours before countdown.”

The rocket, the team, and the poster were all present for VUSE’s annual Student Design Day April 22, three days after the event, followed by a similar presentation to the Mechanical Engineering External Advisory Committee.

“This program has provided our students with amazing technical and real-life challenges and I am very proud that they handled them so well.  Most of the seniors on the team have leveraged their experiences to get excellent career offers,” Anilkumar said.

The Aerospace Club will continue to compete in the NASA USLI competition in the near term, Anilkumar said. The club also plans to diversify its student portfolio by recruiting electrical engineers in the first phase, to assist in the avionics design, and eventually computer engineers to assist in the design of autonomous UAVs.

The activities of the Aerospace Club are funded by the Tennessee Space Grant Consortium and the Department of Mechanical Engineering.