Texas A&M engineering students design, fly rocket

July 23, 2004
| By: Aubrey Bloom

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- There's more to getting a rocket off the ground than lighting the fuse and getting out of the way. Just ask a team of Texas A&M University engineering students who launched their own rocket earlier this spring. The rocketeers -- 30 students from the university's Departments of Aerospace, Mechanical and Electrical Engineering -- began designing their rocket last fall as part of a multidisciplinary design course funded by the Boeing Co. The eight-foot-tall rocket (T-BIRD, short for Texas A&M-Boeing Interdisciplinary Rocket Design) roared into the sky in April from the West Texas Spaceport in Pecos County. The process is every bit as complicated as you might expect, says project coordinator Dr. Reza Langari, associate professor of mechanical engineering in Texas A&M's Look College of Engineering, who worked with Dr. Tom Pollock, associate professor of aerospace engineering, and Dr. Jeff McDougall, lecturer in electrical engineering, as the three faculty members overseeing the student teams. And it didn't end with a successful launch; students still had to complete the project's final report for Boeing. "Rockets are not easy to build," Langari said. "This was a complex project, and altogether the students put in a significant amount of work -- probably a total of at least 5,000 hours." Ten teams -- aerodynamics; documentation; guidance; navigation and control; launch site and launch support; manufacturing and assembly; payload; propulsion; recovery; structures; and test and evaluation -- spent last fall working out their designs and the details of manufacturing the parts of the rocket. In December, they presented their designs to a panel of Boeing engineers and Texas A&M faculty members with expertise in rocket design and construction. The students' designs had to meet the requirements of a request for proposal, or RFP, provided by Boeing. To meet Boeing's RFP, the rocket had to weigh 30 pounds at liftoff, carry a camera to a specific point 6,000 feet in the air, deploy the camera, return high-resolution images from 5,000 feet in the air in "realtime," and recover everything without damage. The students spent the spring semester turning their designs into a rocket. Design and manufacturing challenges ranged from turning Kevlar fabric and epoxy into the six-inch diameter by six-foot fuselage to designing and fabricating the complex shape of the solid fuel inside the engine. Altogether, the students dealt with 50 vendors for items ranging from a digital altimeter to plywood for internal bulkheads and ripstop nylon for parachutes. Meeting the April deadline was a challenge, Langari said. "You want to focus on the content and at the end you realize management and scheduling are equally if not more important," he said. The students flew the rocket twice in mid-April from the West Texas launch site. The team drew on technical advice from David Lund of the TEES Aerospace Vehicle Systems Institute, Dr. Don Ward of the aerospace engineering department, Dr. Terry Creasy of the department of mechanical engineering, and Dr. Ken Reinschmidt of the civil engineering department. The team also benefited from lectures by Dr. Clair Nixon of Texas A&M's Mays Business School and received valuable assistance from machinists in the aerospace and mechanical engineering departments.

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