NMSU rocketry team sees successful trial launch

Writer: Isabel A. Rodriguez

After working for several months to build a 30-pound, 10-foot rocket, the NMSU NASA/USLI team saw its first successful launch earlier this month.


NMSU’s Atomic Aggies will test the mettle of their rocket in April. (Photo by Thomas Kindig.)

The launch took place on Feb. 18 at the Space Model Rocketry Association site in Alamogordo.

The group, known as the Atomic Aggies, is preparing for NASA’s University Student Launch Initiative competition in Huntsville, Ala. NASA student launch projects are sponsored by ATK Aerospace Systems.

“This is our first year competing with other universities across the United States,” said Crystal Escamilla, team leader. “We are building a reusable rocket that will reach an apogee (high point) of one mile. It will contain a scientific payload that measures temperature, humidity, pressure and solar irradiance.”

Escamilla and Lynn Kelly, faculty adviser, learned of the competition after attending a NASA rocket workshop in the summer.

“The focus of competition is to get a feel of what it’d be like to be a part of NASA,” said Kelly. “Our first goal was to get accepted, which we achieved. Our second is to complete the competition and launch successfully.”

After being accepted, the team had to submit design reports and conduct video conferences with NASA engineers who then gave the group feedback. This follows NASA’s own design cycle giving the students an exclusive experience.

The team must also complete several hours of community outreach to middle school students.

“We have teamed up with SEMAA – NASA’s Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy— and are going to middle schools to teach kids the basics of rocketry, and help them build model rockets designed by our mentor, Thomas Kindig,” said Escamilla, engineering technology major.

In order to qualify for the competition, the rocket must meet certain criteria.

“The objective is to launch a rocket one mile up,” said Kindig, network administrator for White Sands Federal Credit Union. “Altitude is the leading factor. If we go over by more than about 20 feet, we’re disqualified, and we can lose points for not reaching the altitude.”

The rocket must have a GPS location transmitter with a ground radio receiver so that the team can collect its real time position.

There are also safety regulations, including a deployment charge test that the team must pass, prior to proceeding to the final competition.

At the trial launch, the Aggies’ other mentor and electronics engineering consultant, John DeMar was also on hand. Because he is the only one from the group who is certified by the National Association of Rocketry, he had to pack the engine into the rocket.

The Atomic Aggies still have plenty of work to do before the competition in April.

“We have to determine which way to make adjustments because at our trial launch, the rocket went way too high (7,200 feet),” said Kelly. “We reduce the size of the engine or add more weight. Our GPS wasn’t working, and if we change the design, we have to make sure that the parachutes will work with the changes.”

The Atomic Aggies will be competing against about 40 other universities including Virginia Tech University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The competition offers scholarship opportunities and looks good on graduates’ resumes,” added Kindig. “Members of the team are soliciting donations from Las Cruces area businesses in order to secure funding for the project.”

About 24 students are involved with the launch competition. Besides designing, building and testing, students have to handle on-engineering activities such as accounting, outreach, ordering parts and writing. Most of the members are engineering technology majors and one student from mechanical engineering.

Kelly said that Atomic Aggies will hold another test launch in mid-March at the Alamogordo site.
The winner of the competition will receive a $5,000 award from ATK Aerospace Systems. Last year’s overall project winner was Utah State University.

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