In the fields of biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering and physics, NNU’s summer research is in full swing. This week, after a successful test at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Drew Johnson and Lukas Rieke are counting the days till launch.
“Absolutely fantastic” is how Drew Johnson, team leader for NNU’s RockSAT-X, describes just about every aspect of this year’s project. But the most fantastic part, so far, is the green light for launch later this summer.
This fall Drew will be a senior physics engineering major, but his skill set has been stretched well beyond the title on his forthcoming degree. On this project he has programmed software, fabricated structural elements, designed airfoils and printed circuits. Drew hasn’t just been tinkering; all of the team’s work has met the standards set by industry experts at NASA.
“One brilliant thing about NNU’s program is that it creates versatile engineers. I am really good in several engineering areas, I am decent at others, and I am not afraid of tackling new challenges. When I start my career, I can market to employers my specialty and my proven flexibility and problem solving.”
Of course, Drew doesn’t work alone. Under the guidance of Physics and Engineering Department Chair Dr. Dan Lawrence, team members Luckas Reike, Jaron Hush and Connor Beck all contributed long hours of work to this project. “It’s never been hard to put in 40 hours a week this summer. We operate on a strict launch deadline, meaning the work has to get done. We have done up to 70 hours a week, but normal is between 45 and 60 hours.”
On June 23, Dr. Lawrence, Drew, Luckas and Jaron flew to NASA’s Wallops Flight Center to submit their designs to brutal testing and the harshest scrutiny. Drew explains the testing process.
“That Tuesday we had our first test. Before we were even allowed into the Wallops facility, our design went through a sequence test. Essentially, they turn everything on and off to make sure nothing blows up or overheats–both are important to avoid when being near rocket fuel. The motors turned on, the sequence ran and everything performed just as planned. We passed the first checkpoint.
“The next day we went to the facility where our design was integrated with the 40-foot, two-stage rocket and the six other payloads from different schools. Here we got to meet the other teams and see their experiments. We were blown away by the size of the other teams. We only have two full-time workers over this summer, Luckas and I. These other teams had up to seven team members, each with a specialty and a job to do. We realized we were competing at the same level as these huge state schools with less than half the man power.
“Thursday was a work day, and Friday was the most terrifying test—the vibe test. The whole assembled rocket is placed on a shaker table that thrashes the vessel at 25Gs along every axis. It basically tests that payloads will survive launch and reentry. Through the earmuffs we heard deafening clanking of pieces breaking and falling off, but we could not tell what payloads the sounds were coming from. It was not until Saturday that we got to find out the results. We were floored when we heard not a single part of our design had broken!
“That day we were cleared for launch. We are back in the lab now, doing minor adjustments and making the design even better, but really, this is the most confident and relaxed we have been all summer. We prepared well, and now we are benefiting from all the work.”
The RockSAT-X team will travel to Wallops Flight Facility again this summer to watch the launch of their payload. There they will run their experiments, gather data and analyze results. For more details on their experiment, videos and photos of the design, and live updates of the project and final launch, follow “NNU Rocksat-X” on Facebook.
*Update as of July 23, 2014–A recent, unrelated failed launch at Wallops Flight Facility has led to a delay in the NNU RockSAT experiment launch that was scheduled for mid-August. Wallops will undergo an internal review to determine what happened and until then, the RockSAT launch is postponed indefinitely. As of now, they are tentatively planning to reschedule in December during Christmas break, as this is a time all RockSAT participating universities will be available to finish testing their experiments.