For these Hokies, the Sky is not the limit
Rocketry @ Virginia Tech is a design team which focuses on conceptualizing, designing, building, and testing rockets to be presented at SpacePort America, an annual competition held near White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico where teams from all around the world come to compete in various rocketry-related events. I was very interested in their work after coming across their website. So, I sat down with Carmen White and Hannah Kruse to get to know more about this team.
First, I had to get the fundamentals out of the way. I learned that the primary event the teams compete in is a 10,000-foot altitude test for the rocket. As the name suggests, your rocket must be able to reach exactly 10,000 feet and drop off the payload – not higher or lower. The rocket must be designed from scratch and should have a payload with an ‘educational or scientific’ importance. Most importantly, it should pass technical demonstration, meaning it functions perfectly fine.
Sub Teams - Where the work gets done
I asked Hannah, the captain of the team, to provide more insight about how the team goes about this business: “We have two recurrent meetings, one is a general updates session we have every two weeks where we review deadlines, discuss submission guidelines, upcoming test launches, etc. The sub-teams meet every week to review the progress they have made [until] then.” We started talking in depth about the sub-teams that are part of the core group. There are a lot of sub-teams, a list would make things clearer:
Aerostructures = the team in charge of designing the airframe (outer shell) of the rocket. All other sub teams maintain direct contact with them for integrating the components in the rocket.
Avionics = They work on the “fancy” stuff required for a successful rocket launch. This includes the Custom Telemetry system to locate the rocket in air, and an Active Drag System to maneuver the rocket if it is over or undershooting its target altitude.
Business = Carmen had a lot of exciting stuff to talk about her team: the business wing works on attracting sponsors for the team, maintaining an active social media presence, hosting outreach events, and looking over the club finances.
Payload = The “meat” of the rocket – the stuff that’s meant to stay in orbit. For this year’s competition, the team is working on a CubeSat with various sensors to send data back after launch.
Propulsion = Actually launching the rocket is very important of course, and the propulsion team has been working on a new Hybrid Motor for the past two years, which Hannah expects will be ready to present at next year’s competition. They are also incidentally the only club at Tech that does propulsion development.
There are also many other teams focusing on developing critical software for the rocket, creating parachute systems to let the rocket safely land back. I was honestly shocked at the amount of diversification a rocket required.
Hannah fully agreed with my sentiment: “During classes, freshman engineers are shown representations of how things would look like if they were built by only a single type of engineer. For example, structural engineers making an airplane out of wood because that’s the structurally sound thing to do. They really give you the right perspective.”
Greatest and Hardest aspects of the team
I continued the topic of sub-teams by asking both Hannah and Carmen about how they manage so many different teams with separate tasks and deadlines. They both agreed that communication is certainly the hardest part of their work, “You’d sometimes have a guy from the Payloads team wishing he knew more about what the Aerostructure team is doing and vice-versa.” There are apparently 60+ people working on the project and according to Carmen, bringing everyone on the same page can get tedious.
Things turned exciting when we started talking about their best moments while working with the team. For Carmen, being at the competition and getting to know about other teams’ projects is the most fun time. Apparently, everyone’s favorite time of the year is spring when the design phase of the project finishes and they start constructing the rocket and performing the test launches. I would recommend everyone to check out their website for some delightful photos.
Hannah’s journey as a freshman
The subject of the club’s relevance was brought up, which got me interested in Hannah’s experiences while starting out as a freshman on the team, “It’s like drinking from a fire hose in the beginning.” Hannah used to spend countless hours in the aerostructure watching the team, trying to figure things out one day at a time, “Very few people join this team knowing what they are doing but by the time they graduate they are better prepared for their industry than they would have been otherwise.”
She told me an interesting story about an aerospace student who was tasked with working on electronics on a hybrid motor, something he had never done before. Watching other people brainstorm and come up with solutions helped him along the way. The final components he built are used by the team till date: “A lot of our alumni who have attained high positions in the industry swear by their words when they say the rocketry team was the most important experience they had in college.” Hannah likes to call their project the ‘closest thing to an internship’ on campus because of how well it exposes you to the work you are expected to do in the industry. Spaceport America Cup 2021. Taken by Rocketry @ VT.
Expectations from interested students
As a final note, we started discussing about the kind of students the team hopes to attract this semester and both Carmen and Hannah were quite adamant about diversifying their core team this year, “We desperately need non-Aerospace students. I know about the stereotype of a rocketry team only caring about aerospace students but that couldn’t be further from the truth.” The team is looking forward to welcoming more material science engineers, a lot of electrical engineers, and film students as well as graphic designers for their social media. Even though the general applications are closed right now, Hannah has asked anyone interested to reach out to them and they’ll accommodate you as best as they can.
“We need people who are genuinely interested in what we are building here. There are no hard technical or GPA requirements – just be passionate and willing to put in the hours!” That is the message Hannah has for the readers of the magazine.
Resources Instagram- @rocketryatvirginiatech Facebook- Rocketry at Virginia Tech LinkedIn- Rocketry at Virginia Tech Email- firstname.lastname@example.org Website- rocketryatvirginiatech.org