Rocketeers of Troy

By Robert Perkins

Undergraduates set their sights on the thermosphere as they prepare to launch the world’s first student-made rocket into space.

Black Rock Desert, Nev., 2010. USC's student-run Rocket Propulsion Laboratory launched the Silver Spur 3, its hightest- and fastest-flying rocket to date. The students have built a new rocket that they hope to launch into space this spring. Photo courtesy of USC Rocket Propulsion LaboratorySlideshow IconBlack Rock Desert, Nev., 2010. USC's student-run Rocket Propulsion Laboratory launched the Silver Spur 3, its hightest- and fastest-flying rocket to date. The students have built a new rocket that they hope to launch into space this spring. Photo courtesy of USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory
Senior Alec Leverette in the Rocket Lab workshop in the Rapp Engineering Building. Photo by Roger Snider Senior Sarah Hester in the Rocket Lab workshop. Photo by Roger Snider Senior Bill Murray in the Rocket Lab workshop. Photo by Roger Snider Miles Huang '11 and freshman Jake Hunter examine fins on the Traveler rocket in the Rocket Lab workshop. Photo by Roger Snider Dan Erwin, chair of the Department of Astronautical Engineering and Rocket Lab faculty adviser. Photo by Dietmar Quistorf Students in the Rocket Lab workshop prepare epoxy that will glue together several layers of carbon fiber comprising the nose cone of the Traveler rocket. Photo by Roger Snider From left, seniors Bill Murray and Sarah Hester in the Rocket Lab workshop. Photo by Roger Snider Students in the Rocket Lab workshop use a mold to shape the carbon fiber nose cone of the Traveler rocket. Photo by Roger Snider Students in the Rocket Lab workshop in the Rapp Engineering Building. Photo by Roger Snider From left, Quincy Bean, Evan Olson, Sarah Cusson and Aaron Mitchell in the Rocket Lab workshop. Photo by Roger Snider The Rocket Lab's heavy-duty lathe cuts metal parts to their final shape. Photo by Roger Snider Miles Huang '11 examines fins on the Traveler rocket. Photo by Roger Snider Students in the Rocket Lab workshop in the Rapp Engineering Building. Photo by Roger Snider Photo by Roger Snider Senior Bill Murray operates the Rocket Lab's hacksaw machine. Photo by Roger Snider The Rocket Lab's lathe cuts metal parts to their final shape. Photo by Roger Snider Senior Alec Leverette operates the Rocket Lab's lathe. Photo by Roger Snider Senior Sarah Hester in the Rocket Lab workshop. Photo by Roger Snider Last Row: Matt Orr, Evan Olson, Turner Topping, Aaron Mitchell, Jake Hunter, Mark Smith. Middle Row: Bill Murray, Sarah Hester, Alec Leverette, Quincy Bean, Jordan Noone, Miles Huang. Front Row: Meaghan Sullivan, Sarah Cusson, Julia Levy. Photo by Roger Snider From left, seniors Bill Murray, Sarah Hester and Alec Leverette. Photo by Roger Snider Rocket Lab students pose in front of Tommy Trojan with the Traveler rocket and its launcher, both of which they built by hand. Photo by Pierson Clair

Due to permitting issues, the launch of the Traveler rocket has been delayed until autumn 2012. For updates, go to the USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory Web site.

THIS SPRING, A SMALL GROUP of starry-eyed undergraduates hopes to make USC the first school to send a student-built rocket into space.

The handful of students who comprise the USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory – a wholly student-run organization operating out of a workshop in the Rapp Engineering Building on the University Park campus – will take a hand-built, custom-designed rocket, appropriately named Traveler, out to the Nevada desert and propel it 100 kilometers into the sky – into space, that is.

If they get the Federal Aviation Administration clearance needed for the launch, if the rocket launches successfully, if it goes as high as they have calculated it should and if the onboard GPS units that are supposed to track its altitude do not malfunction, then the Rocket Lab students will have made history.

That’s a whole lot of “ifs.” But when you’re dealing with rockets, nothing is ever certain.

The very existence of the Rocket Lab is the somewhat improbable result of students with a dream meeting faculty with the faith – and resources – to help make that dream come true.

“I kind of see divine providence in the creation of the Rocket Lab,” says Ian Whittinghill ’07, MS ’08, one of its founding members.

While most undergraduates spend their freshman year just trying to get their bearings, Whittinghill arrived in fall 2003 with a ridiculously ambitious plan already mapped out: He intended to put a student-built rocket into space by the time he graduated.

He had something of a head start. His father, George Whittinghill, has spent his entire career in rocket propulsion. And the founder of Whittinghill Aerospace LLC, in Camarillo, Calif., had inspired his son to pursue a similar path.

Ian Whittinghill also received encouragement and guidance from Dan Erwin, chair of the Department of Astronautical Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Erwin agreed to act as faculty adviser for the nascent rocket club, which would nonetheless remain entirely student-run.

“Whether or not he believed our dream was actually possible, he encouraged us to try for it,” Whittinghill says.

Erwin – along with colleagues Mike Gruntman and Joseph Kunc – submitted a proposal for funding to then-dean of engineering C. L. Max Nikias. Nikias, now university president, responded by providing the Rocket Lab team with its own workspace and $160,000 to cover equipment costs.

“For the dean to entrust a sophomore undergrad with those kinds of resources, I am still floored with his trust and generosity,” Whittinghill says. “That’s one of the reasons I love USC.”

In fall 2005, with the funding secured, Whittinghill met a freshman with similar background, experience and drive.

Like Whittinghill, David Reese ’09 had an interest in rockets nurtured from an early age by key individuals – namely his father, a mechanical engineer, and Robert Ause, his high school chemistry teacher at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., who taught him how to mix propellant.

“He let me test-fire motors on the football field,” Reese recalls.

By the time he got to USC, Reese had been mixing his own propellant for three years and was capable of building a functioning rocket motor.

“I was very, very fortunate that Ian had done a lot of the legwork in terms of funding,” says Reese, who now is pursuing a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University. “I got there, and it was like, ‘We have money, let’s build rockets!’ ”

Nikias’ faith was justified. Within the Rocket Lab’s first academic year, its initial cohort of students – led by Whittinghill and Reese – had purchased or built the necessary equipment: a mandrel for making carbon-fiber cylinders, an oven to cure those cylinders and a big propellant mixer.

To show the university just how serious they were, the students built their first rocket at a frantic pace – in about two weeks, according to Reese – and launched it in May 2006.

That rocket, dubbed Del Carbon, remains one of the lab’s triumphs. It has flown three times, reaching a maximum altitude of 21,500 feet at speeds of up to Mach 1.4. It now hangs proudly from the ceiling of the lab.

Del Carbon, like the team’s later rockets, burns a fuel known as 7210. The rubbery mixture is 72 percent ammonium perchlorate and 10 percent aluminum (hence the name, 7210). It is similar to the fuel that powered the Space Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. To mix the propellant, the team used a standard dough mixer you might find in a pastry shop.

About a dozen people showed up to help during the Rocket Lab’s debut. As word got out about the group, each semester brought more new faces – though only about half would stick around once they realized how much work was involved.

Almost every semester sees one or two launches or static tests of a new rocket engine. Students toil long hours in the lab, especially in the weeks preceding a launch or test.

Sarah Hester, a senior from Yorba Linda, Calif., who is team leader for propulsion and also for logistics, spends about 40 to 50 hours a week in the lab when the team is preparing for an imminent launch – that’s on top of classes.

Of the 50 or 60 current members, a core group of 10 to 20 does the bulk of the work, says Alec Leverette, a senior from Houston who is the lab’s co-team leader for operations and global design.

Often, these core members head straight to the lab after classes and stay until the small hours of the morning – if they leave at all. The lab comes equipped with a cot for all-nighters.

“My friends have become Rocket Lab, and the Rocket Lab guys have all become my friends,” says Bill Murray, a senior from Lenexa, Kan., who is the other co-team leader in operations and global design.

BEYOND UNITING like-minded students and allowing them to pursue their passion, the lab also looks great on a résumé.

“The Rocket Lab is run by students just bound for glory,” says Erwin, the astronautical engineering chair.

ATK, a Fortune 500 aerospace and defense company headquartered in Arlington, Va., hired one former lab member without even interviewing him – solely on the strength of his résumé and ATK’s favorable impression of the lab. When Erwin first told company representatives about the Rocket Lab, they “were terribly wide-eyed,” he says.

Other former team members have ended up at such big names in the aerospace industry as SpaceX, Boeing and Raytheon.

“It’s been fantastic. Rocket Lab has gotten me almost every job I’ve ever had,” says Hester, who has interned at Edwards Air Force Research Laboratory, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and Blue Origin LLC. “People really like to see the hands-on experience. They also like to see that I’m pursuing my passion. They eat it up a lot.”

At USC Viterbi, the program has spawned several spin-offs.

Around the time that Whittinghill was setting up the Rocket Lab, three key researchers from the Astronautics and Space Technology Division at USC Viterbi – Erwin, Kunc and Gruntman – were looking to create a center where students could get much-needed, real-world experience to prepare them for the space industry.

Recruiters “had been unhappy because they were getting graduates who were not tech savvy,” says Kunc, professor of astronautics. “The idea was to create a program in which students are building hardware hands-on.”

The trio recognized Whittinghill’s Rocket Lab plan as a good start for creating just such a program.

So, while the bulk of the $160,000 that had been awarded by USC Viterbi went to buy equipment for the lab, a portion was used in 2006 to begin supporting other space-related initiatives – including plans to develop student-built microsatellites and a student-built lunar lander. These projects now are humming along at the school’s Space Engineering Research Center.

BUT FOR ALL ITS SUCCESS over the past six- and-a-half years, the Rocket Lab has yet to complete its original mission of reaching space.

“It’s a goal I always thought we could accomplish while I was a student,” says Whittinghill. “Every project was inching us closer.”

Whittinghill completed his undergraduate degree in 2007 and earned his master’s degree in aerospace engineering from USC the following winter.

His dreams for the Rocket Lab still unrealized, he moved on to join his father’s company. He now works as chief designer alongside the man who started it all for him. “We get to do what we love – together,” the younger Whittinghill says.

Meanwhile back at USC, the highest altitude that the lab has achieved is 60,000 feet, with a rocket named Silver Spur launched in October 2011. That’s just over 18 kilometers, nearly 82 kilometers shy of the goal. (The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale established the Kármán line, an altitude of 100 km, as the beginning of space. At this altitude, Earth’s atmosphere becomes too thin for an airplane’s wings to generate lift, with an abrupt increase in atmospheric temperature and interaction with solar radiation.)

Even so, the students remain confident they can send a rocket to the edge of space. The paperwork, Hester says, will be the trickiest part of the operation. “The technology has been around for a while,” she says. “It’s making sure that people know you know what you’re doing – that you’re not going to blow people up.”

They have competition. Other student teams – notably those at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the U.S. Air Force Academy and California State University, Long Beach – have comparable programs with the same goal in sight.

Whittinghill and Reese have remained in close contact with the latest generation of the Rocket Lab team, confident that USC will win the student space race.

“I know that moment is just going to make me so incredibly proud,” Whittinghill says. “I can’t put words on it. I’m going to be even prouder, if that’s possible, to be a Trojan.”

The last group of students to have worked alongside Whittinghill and Reese now are seniors, bound inexorably for graduation. It is a sign of how committed the students are to the lab that they devote significant energy to passing on their knowledge to the younger members, so that no ground is lost.

Every Monday, the elder Rocket Lab members host a lecture series to discuss what they’ve learned over the past few years – composites, flight dynamics, whatever oral tradition needs to be passed on to the new team.

“Space has been the main objective to this point, and we’ve solved a lot of problems to get here,” says Leverette, who plans to study aerospace propulsion in graduate school.

Once the Rocket Lab fulfills its original purpose of sending a student rocket into space, the group will find a new goal.

“We have a couple of things in mind,” Murray says. He mentions the possibility of turning the Traveler rocket into a small, suborbital payload vehicle.

Currently, Traveler has enough thrust to carry 150 pounds to a height of greater than 100,000 feet, Murray says. Though that’s nowhere near enough power to put a satellite in orbit, it’s more than enough thrust to put an instrument pack into a ballistic suborbital trajectory, pushing it into space for a five- to 10-minute window to gather data.

Ultimately, the decision will almost certainly rest with Rocket Lab’s younger members, the freshmen and sophomores who listen intently at the Monday night lectures and have their own dreams and plans for space missions.

Whether or not the team’s rocket actually reaches space, USC is assured of setting a record – as the first school to launch both student-built rockets and student-built satellites this year, conducting boundary-pushing research historically reserved for government and private corporations.

As Murray puts it, with no hint of self-doubt or humility, “We want to make a USC space program.”

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