Aerospace Club among 20 teams picked by NASA for April ‘launch initiative’

Vanderbilt’s Aerospace Club is among 20 student teams selected by NASA from colleges and universities around the country to participate in NASA’s 2008-2009 University Student Launch Initiative April 18.

The annual rocketry challenge will be held April 18 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Student teams will bring their rocket projects to the NASA center, where professional engineers will conduct formal design reviews of the vehicles and payloads before the students take part in a final, all-day launch.

The initiative, managed by Marshall’s Academic Affairs Office, is designed to inspire University students to pursue careers in fields critical to NASA’s mission: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Corporate sponsorship for the event is provided by ATK Launch Systems of Promontory, Utah, which produces the solid rocket motors for the space shuttle and for the Ares I rocket – America’s next-generation exploration flagship.

Each student team will design, build and field-test one rocket, earning practical experience in the development and execution of a complex engineering project from design to launch. They must develop a vehicle that can fly to an altitude of 1 mile and sustain onboard a payload that gathers measurable data.

Vanderbilt’s project this year, a rocket-launched reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is a sophisticated UAV to be deployed from the rocket. The UAV is designed and built entirely in house, making use of aerodynamics theory, computational fluid dynamics simulation, and wind tunnel studies.

“Currently, the Vanderbilt team has successfully designed, fabricated, and test-flown a proof-of-concept unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and the fabrication of the competition UAV is underway,” said A.V. Anilkumar, club adviser and mechanical engineering professor.

The aircraft is assembled out of carbon fiber, fiberglass and foam. After being deployed from the rocket, the UAV is to be piloted remotely, without visual contact, from a pair of computer terminals on the ground. The reconnaissance package onboard the UAV consists of two camera systems and an infrared thermometer.

At the heart of the UAV’s electronics suite is a 500 MHz computer which interfaces with the reconnaissance systems as well as an array of sensors including Global Positioning System (GPS), roll-rate sensors, accelerometers, a Pitot-static tube, and a barometric altimeter. Data from these systems and sensors is transmitted instantaneously to the ground station.

“The team is in the early stages of flight testing the electronics package.  A rocket test launch will be conducted in March prior to competition, followed by the actual competition launch in April. The team will also present its work in the AIAA Student Conference in Huntsville, Ala., and on Senior Design Day, Tuesday, April 21, in Featheringill Hall.

Last year Vanderbilt’s Aerospace Club won the ‘closest to altitude’ prize, one of the two top prizes in the 2008 NASA-sponsored USLI contest when its 14-foot rocket reached a height of 5,264 feet, just 16 feet short of the 1-mile goal (5280 feet).

New to the NASA challenge this year are teams from Arizona State University in Tempe; two teams from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.; Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne; Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta; Iowa State University in Ames; Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro; Mississippi State University in Starkville; Mitchell Community College in Statesville, N.C.; and Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala.

In addition to Vanderbilt, returning teams hail from Alabama A&M University in Huntsville; Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.; the College of Menominee Nation in Green Bay, Wis.; Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.; Harding University in Searcy, Ark.; Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla; the University of Alabama in Huntsville; the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks; and Utah State University in Logan.

“Each year, the University Student Launch Initiative welcomes an exciting roster of young engineers, whose inventiveness and rigorous attention to detail are an inspiration to all involved,” said Tammy Rowan, manager of Marshall’s Academic Affairs Office. “We look forward to spring and the thrill of seeing rockets lift into the sky.

“It’s our hope that this one-of-a-kind opportunity will have a meaningful, lifelong impact on the participants,” Rowan added. “And we hope their schools and organizations will continue to nurture new generations who will explore, innovate and better our world by helping us travel to others across the solar system.”

In addition to developing and testing their rockets, teams develop a project Web site  ( and deliver preliminary and post-launch reports to their NASA counterparts for review. Teams also conduct outreach classes on their projects for schools or youth organizations in their area, helping to spread interest in engineering and rocketry to upcoming generations of students.

The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington sponsors the University Student Launch Initiative.