Vanderbilt takes top prize in NASA student rocket launch challenge

L-R: 2013 team members A. Voss, B. Dimmig, J. Langford, J. Lee, D. Watkins, B. Smethills, F. Corradetti, R. Thompson, F. Folz, and M. Mitchell with the Vanderbilt Rocket ‘Hello Good Bio.’

National championship is six years in the making

Vanderbilt engineering students won their first national rocket competition after April launch results were combined with technical design reviews and evaluations of written reports and outreach projects, including a website documenting the experience.

NASA today announced that the Vanderbilt Aerospace Club captured first prize in the 2013 NASA Student Launch Initiative after third-place finishes in 2012 and 2011. The Vanderbilt team also took home the 2013 Best Payload Design award for the most creative and innovative payload experiment. This is the fourth consecutive year the club has won the payload award.

Vanderbilt beat 35 other colleges and universities to win the $5,000 top prize, provided by corporate sponsor ATK Aerospace Group of Promontory, Utah. NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, Science Mission Directorate and Office of Education, all in Washington, sponsor the Student Launch Projects challenge. The National Association of Rocketry provides technical review and launch support.

The Vanderbilt rocket – Hello Good Bio – tested the design of a bio-hybrid ramjet engine. NASA cited the payload for maximized safety and science value. The bio-hybrid ramjet engines are miniaturized jet engines that use carbon neutral, 100 percent renewable bio-hybrid fuels for combustion.

“The team’s success was the culmination of a year’s worth of untold man hours in the aerospace shop, teaching rocketry lessons to more than 1,400 middle school and high school students, writing five 150-plus page reports, and three successful rocket flights. I am extraordinarily grateful that NASA recognized all of our hard work with this award,” said mechanical engineering senior Brock Smethills, president of the Aerospace Club.

“This is the sixth straight year Vanderbilt has competed in this national competition and each year we have made progress and come closer to the finish line,” said Amrutur Anilkumar, faculty adviser and director of the Aerospace Club. “Over the years, about 60 university and college teams have participated in this event and coming in first is an extraordinary achievement.”

After months of preparation, teams competed in an April 21 “launch fest” at Bragg Farms in Toney, Ala., near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. NASA judges evaluated rocket designs based on a series of technical design reviews, the results from the rockets’ flights, including a one-mile target altitude, and the operation of the payload. The Vanderbilt rocket reached an altitude of 5,326 feet, against a target of 5,280 feet. Alabama A&M won the Altitude Award by flying 5,269 feet, closest to the mile high altitude.

In the final overall tally, the University of Louisville and Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, won second and third place, behind Vanderbilt. Other universities competing in the 12th annual student launch challenge include Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, MIT, Northwestern, Penn State, University of Alabama-Huntsville, University of Illinois, University of Florida, University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech, and the University of North Carolina.

Building on success

“Very early on in this competition, Vanderbilt identified novel payload design as the challenge that would justify rocket flight, and we have established a niche in this area,” said Anilkumar, professor of the practice of mechanical engineering.

“Winning the national competition was always the goal of the Aerospace Club. I am really glad that this year’s team has won it for all of us, and I hope future teams can build on these successes,” said Kyle Rosenstein, 2010 team leader.

“We have been able to select a very talented and determined group of students. Rain, shine or snow they have taken up the flight challenge at launch sites as far away as Talladega, Ala., Memphis, and Elizabethtown, Ky. We have had our share of failures and broken rockets, but through it all the students’ desire to persevere and win has been truly commendable,” Anilkumar said.

A turning point in the club’s rocket project occurred in 2009 when they had a spectacular failure during the launch event when they attempted to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle from the rocket at about 2,500 feet. After that, the team decided that payloads would no longer be just “intense technical challenges” but they would address core scientific issues that would require a rocket flight to accomplish that goal.

“We have never looked back since, and the teams have won four back-to-back payload design awards. Some of the novel payloads like the thermoelectric generator to recover waste heat from aerospace engines, and the bio-hybrid-fueled ramjet engine have really caught the attention of a wider audience as they address contemporary energy-related issues of efficiency, energy recovery, and biofuel substitution,” Anilkumar said.

“The novelty of payloads is what has been drawing our students. They want to be at the forefront of exciting engineering challenges. They are not concerned by the fact that they spend literally ten months working long hours, all for the sake of a ten second rocket flight,” he added.

It has energized a whole group of Vanderbilt engineers who have gone on to seek careers and higher education in aerospace engineering.

“Congrats to the team. This is so exciting,” said Jennifer Frankland, a 2011 team member who is completing a master’s degree at Georgia Tech and joining Siemens Energy.

“It is great to hear that the Aerospace Club is winning the important awards at NASA SLI. This year the team’s rocket got a great altitude and they had a perfect path to the championship,” said 2012 team leader Zachariah Smith, who works at Robins Air Force Base as a mechanical engineer.

Kyle Bloemer, a 2011 team member and now an informatics manager at Norton Healthcare, said, “A great accomplishment for all involved! I’m proud to be a part of the Vanderbilt Aerospace Club legacy.”

As news of the win spread, other former teammates responded. Congratulatory messages arrived from Sam Nackman (2010), now at Space-X; Tyler Lamb (2009) at Boeing; and Sam Malanoski (2011), at ZF Friedrichshafen in Germany.

Anilkumar said the award money would be deposited to the Kyser Miree Scholarship Fund at the Vanderbilt School of Engineering. “Kyser was the club’s vice president in the 2008-2009 challenge year, and he was very eager for the Aerospace Club to shine nationally and be involved in outreach activities.”

The Vanderbilt Aerospace Club is supported by the Tennessee Space Grant Consortium and the Department of Mechanical Engineering.