Students soar in rocketry competition

Rocketry team
November 7, 2018
Pictured above, from left to right: Nate Michek (engineering physics), Morgan Fenger (biology), David Kendhammer ( physics and mechanical engineering), Tyler Sorensen (criminal justice), Chandler Tollison (electrical engineering), Nate Zabel (electrical engineering), Jacqueline Muller (civil engineering), Ben Van Oss (computer science), Elizabeth Bohlman (electrical engineering) and Rocketry Club Advisor Dr. Katie Rabidoux, assistant professor of engineering physics.

If you think of rocketry as solely a hobby for people with several trillion dollars—and a space center—to spare, the UW-Platteville Rocketry Club would like to show you a different side of the pursuit. During the course of their last competition, the team has dealt with challenges ranging from payload stability, to low batteries, to a component that got lost in a field. But they haven’t let unexpected challenges cramp their imaginative and ambitious style.

Besides placing third in the Wisconsin Collegiate Rocket Launch, the team has presented a poster and rocket at the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium conference, a prestigious annual exhibition in which college and university teams from across the state gather to network, learn, and present the results of research funded by the WSGC. (In a first this year, several high school NASA HUNCH competition teams attended the WSGC conference—including a delegation from Platteville High School.) The conference gives students the opportunity to meet industry representatives, professors and graduate students, all of who provide feedback on the students’ posters.

“The judged poster session at the conference prepares our students to present and communicate research results both visually, in writing, and orally when they give talks about their posters,” said Dr. Katie Rabidoux, assistant professor of engineering physics and advisor for the Rocketry Club. “The conference prepares them to give short and effective presentations, and that’s good practice whether they’re going into industry or graduate school.”

Next year the Rocketry team won’t have to go to the WSGC conference; because the conference will be coming to them. “We’re still in the preliminary stages,” said Rabidoux, “but we’ve sent a draft proposal and are finalizing the details on hosting the next annual Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium conference on Friday, August 9, 2019. We’re looking to form a student committee to help with the planning.”

As the Rocketry Club looks forward to the next big conference, one thing is for certain: they will be busy refining their next competitive rocket design. We sat down with Chandler Tollison, a fifth-year Electrical Engineering major from Tomahawk, Wisconsin to learn more about the idiosyncratic pursuit of excellence in rocketry.

First off, I understand that you were the team leader for the Collegiate Rocket Launch held in southeast Wisconsin. Can you tell me the basics about the competition?

Well, for Collegiate Rocket Launch, the rules and the specific goal are always announced at the beginning of the school year. This last year, the goal was to land the rocket and then to take a 360-degree photo of the place where you landed. We design our ideas and then spend the semester constructing a rocket to fulfill that challenge. Once we get something that we think will work, we can launch our high power rockets at the Pioneer Farm.

Interestingly, there are only two places in the whole state of Wisconsin where you can launch rockets—Pioneer Farm and Richard Bong State Park, which is three and a half hours away. The next sites are in North Branch, Minnesota and Princeton, Illinois. So a lot of colleges we compete against have to find the nearest launch site and drive for several hours to get there. (All those other sites provide an opportunity for rocket launch at least once a month.)

We test our rocket first at Pioneer Farm, then make tweaks to make sure everything is working, then go to Richard Bong where you can do higher full test launches. Generally we have two test launches before our contest, which this time was held in Richard Bong State Park.

What goes into the creation of a rocket? Can you walk me through the process?

Sometimes we build a prototype rocket at half the scale of our planned rocket. That prototype tends to be a simple cardboard tube. This year, though, we went right into construction of our main rocket. We use 100 percent fiberglass from a rocketry supplier for our tube and the rocket’s fins. Our rocket was 3 inches in diameter and about 6 feet long. It weighed about 7.5 pounds, which for this competition is pretty heavy.

What are some of the pitfalls or dangers you must avoid during construction and testing?

scissorlift designThe first priority is always safety. When you’re working with fiberglass, which is not good for your lungs, you have to wear personal protective equipment and safety glasses all times. During construction we also work with epoxy (which is a skin irritant), so gloves are important. Finally, with the rocket itself, the fins must be perfectly straight, because any angle or cant will make the rocket spin. Stability is an important consideration within the design—we measure stability through a unit called a caliper, an arbitrary unit matching the diameter of the rocket. In order to reach a safe margin stability (more than 1), the fins have to be large and the weight has to be towards the nose cone. With our rocket this year, we had a stability of around 5, because we placed the payload in the nose of the rocket. The payload was the gear to take the picture.

No one else had a design like ours—it was very unique and ambitious. Inside the rocket, the camera was attached to a scissorlift that was compressed down and ready to be activated by a spring held back by a servo. The rocket would open its parachute and land flat on the ground. Then, two arms would extend horizontally from the rocket so that the scissorlift would be oriented vertically. So when the servo turned, it released the scissorlift and stuck it up out of the body of the rocket about 6-8 inches, which would allow the camera to get above the tall grass it would be landing in. At that point, the camera would rotate 360 degrees while taking a picture.

How do evaluation and scoring work in a rocketry competition?

Let’s take this competition as an example. The task this year was to take a photo after the rocket landed. Sometimes, depending on the competition, there are tasks during flight or during recovery. Although there was a specific goal of the 360-degree image, that task is only a small portion of a team’s total score. The larger portion is hitting a specific altitude; this year it was 3,000 feet.

Additionally, about 25 percent of scoring relates to elements of your flight: if the flight is straight or spinning, whether the parachute gets tangled upon descent, etc. If one of those things happens, you get points taken off. If all goes well, it’s a perfect flight.

Finally, documentation, like a preflight report, flight readiness report, design report and post flight report, all contribute. Paperwork is really what wins you the competition. You could have a failure of your rocket, but still place in the top three if your documentation is strong enough. I believe there were eight teams at the competition this year.

Walk me through your team’s performance in the Wisconsin Collegiate Rocket Launch.

In Wisconsin Collegiate, we did three flights. Only one is necessary, but in order to improve our score we planned to fly three times. Our first flight did not go as planned. It only went to 2,200 feet, which was short of our altitude goal. During flight, the mount that was holding the camera in place broke, and the camera fell off from 2,000 feet in the air. So we didn’t get the picture, and we had to search in the field for an hour before we found the camera. Shockingly, it was intact. (It landed in some soft grass.) We were able to reuse it, although we discovered on the second flight (which went a little higher) that since the camera had been rolling since the fall, the battery had died. On the third flight, which was our last ditch attempt, we took a hacksaw and cut off four inches of our rocket, which lightened it up and made it so it could fly a little higher. We got 2,600 feet as our final altitude, with a partial 360-degree image.

How do you think being in the Rocketry Club has changed you as an engineer?

You learn leadership, like how to manage people and their time, and how to harness different individuals’ abilities, as well as how to think outside the box. The scissorlift idea was one of those ideas that was “just so crazy it might work.” In order to win competitions like this or even to place, you kind of need a crazy idea. But we thought, well, if this works, it might win us the competition, and that’s what we were going for. And in the end, we placed third out of eight!

Written by Jane Halpern, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Science.


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