Vanderbilt rocketry team places second in 2021 NASA Student Launch Competition

Vanderbilt Rocket Team members (L-R) Will Wu, Nick Pieper, Ryan Burinescu, Jon Marchineck, Will Reisner, Cameron Schepner, Alif Emazuddin, Ali Kilic and Alex Stevens in front of their Phoenix Rocket prior to lift off in Shelby Park, Memphis, on May 1, 2021.

The Vanderbilt Rocket Team placed second in the Launch Division of the 2021 NASA Student Launch Competition, the space agency announced June 4. The team will receive $2,500 from the National Space Club. The Vanderbilt team also won NASA’s Educational Engagement Award for their innovative virtual rocketry workshops for school students.

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is the division winner; the University of Notre Dame was third in this year’s competition. Purdue University and North Carolina State University rounded out the top five teams in the launch division. For the past nine months, 46 teams entered the launch competition, one of NASA’s Artemis Student Challenges.

This year NASA challenged teams to design a lander—when deployed from the rocket on descent from apogee at an altitude between 500 and 1000 feet—that could right itself.  Vanderbilt’s Mantis lander when readied for rocket flight was a whopping 14 pounds with sophisticated levelling and locomotive capabilities and the ability to withstand a hard landing, said rocketry design team member Ryan Burinescu.

In addition to containing a system to upright itself, NASA required the landers to level to within 5 degrees of vertical and then take a 360-degree panoramic image of the location and transmit the image back to the team.

Competing was difficult this year due to Covid’s laboratory and travel restrictions. “This probably affected all the teams in one way or the other. Zoom meetings during the year were double edged, they made meetings easy and professional, but several critical design aspects went unnoticed,” said Burinescu. “We started seeing successful results only when we switched to in-person meetings.”

The team named their rocket for the mythical bird ‘Phoenix’ as they faced several failures in the run up to the final launch that was held in Shelby Park in Memphis on May 1. “Phoenix flew beautifully reaching an altitude of 3800 ft. as predicted,” Burinescu said.

Teams were not required to travel to Huntsville, Alabama, to complete the project and compete. Instead, they were permitted to complete their competition launch at a National Association of Rocketry or Tripoli Rocket Association-sanctioned launch in their respective local areas.

“On launch day we had two options. Drive to Samson, Alabama, and play safe by landing in the predicted very low wind conditions or challenge ourselves in Memphis with the higher predicted winds,” said project leader Cameron Schepner. “We decided to stick to the latter option in the spirit of the competition, also because it would provide us an opportunity to scientifically analyze the outcome and understand where the next iteration in design would be.”

“The Mantis lander has segmented legs that help in levelling and locomotion. We chose the name for its bio-inspiration,” said team member Ali Kilic. Structural engineer Alif Emazuddin said the challenging part was to design each lander segment robust enough to handle the landing.

‘We ruggedized our lander for space flight. The journey from the lab to flight was a tough one,” said Jon Marchineck, payload and prototype design engineer. “Earth-based landing is challenging due to winds that can result in horizontal drift and awkward landing angles. With a vectored thruster, we have a perfect design. Our payload was a whopping 30% of the rocket weight, unheard of in rocketry.”

“The best part of our lander design is the smooth coupling between software and hardware systems, and the elegant levelling algorithm that brought the lander home,” said Will Wu, embedded systems engineer on the team. Watch the Mantis lander performance video.

“There were times when field failures were difficult for the team morale, but in the final analysis we are really happy that we stood firm, perfected our lander, and reached the end,” said Alex Stevens, lead payload engineer on the team. “All payload avionics worked perfectly on launch day. The launch field itself was not ready for rocketry, so we had to mow the grass before we could even set up on launch day!” said Nick Pierce, avionics lead on the team.

“The high point this year for our program has surely to be the live demonstration of the Mantis lander for Space Force General Raymond at Vanderbilt a couple of weeks back. the general was really impressed by our rocketry program and Mission,” said senior William Reisner.

A.V. Anilkumar

“Almost 15 years back, we started as a strong payload team because that is where the modern challenges in engineering are,” said Amrutur Anikumar, director of the Vanderbilt Aerospace Design Laboratory and mechanical engineering professor. “Winning every time requires dotting all i’s and crossing all the t’s and making sure that the payload can handle the rocketry challenges.

“I am really glad we continue to be strong at the NASA Student Launch Competition, even after all these years and tough competition. The post launch assessment review submitted by this year’s team was by far the best report submitted over the years,” Anilkumar said. The Vanderbilt University rocket team has won an unprecedented seven NASA Student Launch national titles.

“Covid made competing difficult for all the teams. However, the students will have gained immensely in professional skills that will help them in careers. Hopefully, next year’s competitions can be held in one place and on a single day so that all projects can be judged simultaneously both by peers and the authorities. This is something that was not possible this year as teams had to launch from their chosen fields and on different days,” said Anilkumar.

The Vanderbilt Rocket Team also placed in five categories

STEM Engagement Award (College Level, any division), presented to the team that best informed others about rocketry and other space-related topics:

  • 1st Place: Vanderbilt University
  • 2nd Place: Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri
  • 3rd Place: University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana

Experiment Design Award (Launch Division), presented to the team with the most creative and innovative payload design while maximizing safety and science value:

  • 1st Place: University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • 2nd Place: Vanderbilt University
  • 3rd Place: Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

Project Review Award (Launch Division), presented to the team with the best combination of written reviews and formal presentations:

  • 1st Place: California State University, Long Beach
  • 2nd Place: Vanderbilt University
  • 3rd Place: Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

AIAA Reusable Launch Vehicle Award (Launch Division), presented to the team with the most creative, innovative, and well-constructed overall design while still maximizing safety and efficiency:

  • 1st Place: North Carolina State University, Raleigh
  • 2nd Place: Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri
  • 3rd Place: Vanderbilt University

Best-Looking Rocket Award (College Level, any division), presented to the college or university team that is judged by their peers to have had the best-looking rocket:

  • 1st Place: California State University, Long Beach
  • 2nd Place: Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
  • 3rd Place: Vanderbilt University

Contact: Brenda Ellis, 615 343-6314