University of Massachusetts Amherst

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MIE Students Building Rocket for NASA Competition

The Launch Team (left to right: Fowler, Dodd, Perham, Kelly)

Minuteman 1

A team of four mechanical engineering students from UMass Amherst is in the process of designing, building, testing, and launching a 92-inch-long, four-inch-diameter, 200-ounce rocket to compete in the NASA Student Launch challenge. The national competition engages teams from many colleges and universities across the nation in an eight-month commitment to design, build, and fly payloads and/or vehicle components on high-powered, scale-model rockets to support the “Space Launch System,” America’s new rocket program being developed for deep space travel.

The challenge for teams of the NASA Student Launch is to design a system for a simulated Mars recovery mission. Each team must have automated ground support equipment that picks up an encapsulated sand sample off the ground and loads it into the rocket. The rocket will retain the sample throughout flight which, after launch, will achieve a maximum altitude of 3,000 feet. The sample contained in a rocket section will separate at 1,000 feet on descent and parachute down separately with GPS tracking. The team will recover all rocket components and ensure that they remain reusable.

“As a team, we have just completed our Preliminary Design Review and presented our results to NASA engineers and National Association of Rocketry members with great success,” explains team member Nathan Fowler. “We are very proud of this milestone achievement.” More information, including the design-review documentation, can be found on the team’s website:

The UMass Student Launch Team is made up of senior mechanical engineering students Fowler (control systems lead), Maxwell Perham (team leader and vehicle lead), Andrew Dodd (safety officer and automated ground support equipment), and Gregory Kelley (parachute recovery and systems interaction lead). The team is being advised by Howard Greenblatt of the Central Massachusetts Spacemodeling Society and Professors James Rinderle and Frank Sup of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department.

This pioneering team is the first group of UMass students to enter the NASA Student Launch competition, and the team members are extremely excited at the prospect of studying, designing, and launching a high-powered rocket, scheduled for takeoff in April of 2015 at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. During the second weekend of April, the team will travel to Alabama, where it will complete a launch readiness review and safety briefing, while also displaying its design at the Rocket Fair. Finally, the team will demonstrate the functionality of its robotic ground-support equipment and launch the rocket.

According to the NASA website (, the U.S. Space Launch System will provide an entirely new capability for human exploration beyond Earth orbit. On September 14, 2011, NASA announced its design selection for the new launch system, declaring that it would take the agency's astronauts farther into space than ever before and provide the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts. It will also back up commercial and international transportation services to the International Space Station. Designed to be flexible for crew or cargo missions, the Space Launch System is expected to be safe, affordable, and sustainable, while fostering NASA’s future advancement into space.

The UMass launch vehicle is designed with the requirements of a particular Space Launch System mission in mind, as supplied by NASA. The UMass team is purchasing commercially available components, such as the airframe, nosecone, and parachutes, from high-power rocket suppliers and modifying them to suit the needs of the mission.

The UMass team has designed a sample capture and retention system which uses a modified nosecone. The sample will be housed securely within the nosecone, with the nosecone becoming a separate recovery system. An altitude controller will be implemented on the vehicle to control the apogee height.

The Automated Ground Support Equipment (AGSE) will use a robotic arm to pick up samples off the ground and insert them into the sample drawer in the nosecone of the rocket. The AGSE will be based on some standard robotics parts modified to fit the mission needs. A sturdy base will be constructed to support the AGSE, which must pick up a small sample off the ground, load it into the rocket, and secure the sample for launch, all autonomously with no interaction from the team.

On November 22, Kelley, Dodd, and Fowler completed an important stage of the team’s NASA process by visiting a launch site in Amesbury, Massachusetts. There they launched a two-inch-diameter rocket, the "Um," and their new four-inch-diameter rocket named Minuteman 1.

“It was a very cold day, but we were very excited for the launch,” says Fowler. “We took the morning to prep our rockets under the guidance of our mentor, Howard Greenblatt. We had a successful launch of the "Um" to an altitude of 923 feet. During descent, we achieved a flawless dual-deployment recovery with the vehicle descending under a drogue parachute from apogee to 500 feet, and then the deployment of the main parachute. The rocket landed on the field and was recovered intact.”

Later in the afternoon, they prepared and launched their five-foot-tall Minuteman 1 rocket on a CTI H-120 motor. This flight was designed to be a sub-scale flight to meet NASA requirements. This was also a special flight for Kelly, who achieved his National Association of Rocketry Level 1 Certification for a successful flight. Riding on this rocket was a prototype altimeter sled, which was designed by Fowler and printed on the Makerbot rapid prototyping machine in the student-run Innovation Maker Space in Elab. Also on-board was a video camera to monitor flight events.

“The result was a beautiful flight for the Minuteman 1, reaching an altitude of 1,421 feet,” observes Fowler. “At the maximum altitude, the vehicle separated under the ejection charge and descended on its drogue parachute. The rocket descended fast in a flat spin until 500 feet, at which point the main parachute was deployed. The rocket landed softly and was recovered intact, earning the team its successful sub-scale test.”

The experience of the UMass team demonstrates how the NASA Student Launch is designed so that every project in the competition is provided with resources, learning experiences, and step-by-step reviews for both the participating students and their advisors.

“We are very glad to have the support of the MIE department and the Commonwealth Honors College as we move through this project,” says Fowler. “We hope to shift the perception of what students can accomplish here at UMass. As a team, we have no doubt about the value that a true design competition has. We are applying knowledge from nearly every class we have taken at UMass.” (December 2014)