Since 1942, when Wernher von Braun launched a 2-ton, liquid-propellant rocket (and the deadly V2 missile) into space, there have been more than 5,000 rocket launches, many by NASA, some by Chinese and Russian space agencies and, increasingly , by SpaceX and other commercial spaceflight firms.
But the Liquid Rocket Lab at Cal Poly Pomona wants to be the first university-based team to lift off above 45,000 feet and-in the future-into space.
PCMag was invited to meet the team's rocket, Bronco, its aerospace engineering team, and supervisor Dr. Frank Chandler, an Assistant Professor at the College of Engineering who teaches Aerospace Design, Propulsion and Computational Fluid Dynamics.
"I'm of the [1950s] October Sky generation, "Professor Chandler told PCMag when we arrived." Inspired by the first Sputnik launch to get into rocketry. I spent 40 years in the aerospace industry, first at Rockwell International, then Boeing, just as they were finishing up on the Apollo program. During that time I worked on many NASA programs, including the Space Shuttle, doing mission support, sequestered doing analysis during rocket launches, making sure that the astronauts who went up would come back. "
In the Aerospace Engineering Conference Room, we sat in a briefing from Dr. Chandler to a subset of the 70-member team: Richard Picard, Alfredo Herrera, Tatsuya Danno, Colby Truong, Eric Gonzalez, and Jesus David Montes-all undergraduates studying aerospace, engineering, mathematics, or physics.
Then we all walked over to Building 13, where the Structures Lab is located. It's a large hangar-type building full of rocketry equipment: tools, sensors, tubing, valves to carry cryogenic rocket fuel, nose cones, parachutes, tail fins, and raw materials ranging from wood to high-tech carbon fiber on various workbenches.
Bronco 1 is in pieces right now as the team works on it. But at full stretch, it's 15 feet tall, weighs 115 pounds, has a liquid-methane burning engine, an aluminum / fiberglass "skin," to Cygnus Ablative Cooled Engine, and is funded by a $ 1.67 million gift from the National College Resources Foundation .
Here are some of the team talking about their specific area of responsibility on Bronco 1:
Alfredo Herrera on Bronco 1's electronics:
Colby Truong on Bronco 1's propellant liquid system:
Eric Gonzalez on Bronco 1's engine:
Richard Picard on Bronco 1's test module:
Tatsuya Danno on Bronco 1's propulsion system:
Bronco 1 has been through several tests in the past year, including one earlier this year at the Lucerne Dry Lake Launch Site in the middle of the Mojave Desert, at an altitude of 2,848 feet.
"That night, the test team stayed here pretty late in the lab, doing pre-launch tests," Alfredo Herrera told us. "Then we headed out about 4 a.m. in a truck we borrowed from the College of Engineering. For safety purposes the rocket was broken down and we assembled it at the site."
"The more fragile components we place in Pelican protective houses," added Richard Picard. "Others we wedge between ice chests in the back of the truck."
When they arrived at the Mojave Desert several hours later, the team disembarked from their fleet of vehicles and got into formation, each sub-team with their own task list. They worked for over two hours until they were ready to take it out to the launch rail.
"[We] went up to the Rangemaster, told him which pad we were going to launch on, put it on there, set the altimeters and ran back to a safe distance, "Picard said.
Satisfied that all security checks had been done, the Rangemaster initiated the countdown and Bronco 1 had a lift off. Here's to video clip from the day shot by team member Eric Gonzalez on his phone. If you're at work, turn down your speakers-it's loud.
Here is the view of the launch from the ground. Warning: LOUD!
Video credit to Eric Gonzalez. pic.twitter.com/8hqcJgzbyk
– CPP Liquid Rocket Lab (@CPPLRL) May 21, 2018
"Then we all just prayed that the parachute would open," said Tatsuya Danno. "You start to see it tip over and then 'pop'-it's an amazing feeling." The parachute has a GPS transmitter attached, so the team could locate the rocket and bring it back to the lab.
Bronco 1 is continuously going through testing. "Our next one will be the first" hot fire engine test, "" explained Jesus David Montes. Each part of the rocket needs testing, and it's easiest-and more effective-to do each one in isolation. "
"We need to ensure our electronics can handle cryogenic temperatures," said Gonzalez, "and that all the plumbing and parts are functioning properly. The next test environment will be on campus, taking at least two dozen components, including solenoids, valves and Running liquid nitrogen through them, down to minus 286 [F] to ensure nothing freezes up under those conditions. "
If you follow CPPLRL on Twitter, they'll be posting updates from that test day and a debrief for the team.
After that, everything is geared towards one goal: the FAR-Mars Launch competition on March 2-3, 2019. Jointly sponsored by the Mars Society (Denver) and Friends of Amateur Rocketry (California), the competition took place earlier this year in the Mojave Desert, but nobody won the $ 100,000 grand prize.
"That's because launching a liquid-fueled rocket above 45,000 feet is a serious complex and difficult task," explained Professor Chandler. "But if any team can do it, in 2019, this is it. This is a great group of engineers. I think they should all go to high school and I know they have great careers ahead of them in the aerospace."