Rocketry at UAA Club provides hands-on experiences for members

Rocketry is about designing, building and launching rockets. While model rockets are intended more like toys, the rockets launched by collegiate clubs can be dozens of feet tall and reach altitudes of 45,000 feet.

Members of the Rocketry at UAA Club pose in front of three of their completed rockets in 2016. Photo courtesy of the Rocketry at UAA Facebook page.

The Rocketry at UAA Club has about 15 active members. Most members are mechanical engineering students, along with a few electrical engineering majors, Forest Sparks, a club member and senior mechanical engineering major, said. 

Current club president Walter Nagel said the club is very welcoming to people of all experience levels.

“People come in all the time with no experience, [they] get involved and get their hands dirty. You learn a lot,” Nagel said.

The club also offers opportunities to work on projects that are similar to real-world conditions, Sparks said. 

“When you’re doing an engineering problem out of a textbook, you’re given a lot of things to solve the problem. In real life, you’re not, there’s a lot of trial and error,” Sparks said. “It gives students who might not have had an internship… real-world experience so that when they do graduate and are ready for the workplace, they understand it’s not all just tabulated in charts.”

Working on a real-life project looks good on a resume Antonio Won, the previous club president said. Some previous club members have taken jobs at major aerospace companies such as SpaceX, which is making advancements in reusable rockets, and Alaska Aerospace, which operates a spaceport on Kodiak Island. Won also interns at The Launch Company, an Alaskan-based engineering company that provides consultation services to aerospace companies. 

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The Rocketry at UAA Club is currently building a trailer to test a baseline engine and perfect “the timing sequences for propellant flow throughout the piping and instrumentation,” according to a design board for a liquid bi-propellant feed system created by Won and Ben Kellie, CEO and owner of The Launch Company. The feed system is one small step on the way to building a completed 10-meter tall rocket.

The baseline engine was cut out of a solid piece of 6061 aluminum, and a 3D-printed cross-section (right) reveals what the inside of the engine looks like. Photo by John Novotny.

The club is planning to test-fire the engine at the Alaska Aerospace spaceport in Kodiak in December Nagel said. 

They are also working to identify hundreds of small parts donated by Swagelok, a gas and fluid system components manufacturer, so that they can determine which of them they could use as part of the engine.

“[Swagelok] sent us 200-300 little parts and… a big spreadsheet of all their parts [but] they didn’t include any information about them. They just [included] the product code,” Nagel said. “I have a team of engineers basically decrypting all these product codes so that we have a spreadsheet of what each part actually is. That’s something you would not have learned anywhere [else].”

The biggest hurdle for the Rocketry at UAA Club is funding. The club focuses on securing funding from small businesses and must approve their grant requests through UAA, Sparks said. 

“[Funding is] a huge inhibitor, a lot of [the parts we need] cost lots of money,” Sparks said. 

Nagels said that the club has invested more than $20,000 of dollars into their current project. 

Utpal Dutta, an associate professor of civil engineering and the club’s faculty adviser, is an affiliate member of the Alaska Space Grant Program. He helps the club write grant proposals and secure funding. 

“I just try to make it much more competitive [for the club], put some proper language [into the proposals] and make the proper budget. Since I am in the committee, I have a little influence [over] them to try to get this funding. 

The Rocketry at UAA Club’s ultimate goal is to compete in the Friends of Amateur Rocketry Mars Launch Contest which is co-sponsored by the Mars Society. The contest challenges students from colleges around the country to build a rocket and reach an altitude of 45,000 feet. There are two $50,000 prizes. One prize is awarded to the team with a bi-propellant fueled rocket and another to the team with a rocket powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen. 

“If one team can achieve both goals with the same rocket, they will win both prizes,” Mark Holthaus, director and treasurer of Friends of Amateur Rocketry, said on the company’s website.

The club sent two members to observe the competition in 2018, Dutta said. 

“I sent them to see how things are so that based on [their observations], they can prepare and make the design,” Dutta said. “They went there, they learned something and… now it is their turn to actually participate in the competition. I am hopeful that they can do it.”

The Rocketry at UAA Club is open to everyone of any experience level to join. 

“We’re more than happy to get anyone involved who’s up for it,” Nagel said. 

If you’re interested in joining the Rocketry at UAA Club, email the club president, Walter Nagel, at [email protected] or attend one of their meetings to learn more. The club meets every Friday at 5 p.m. in the Engineering and Industry Building, room 101.