Purdue Space Program Student Launch team has successful launch at NASA competition

The Purdue Space Program Student Launch team was one of 45 college teams that competed in NASA’s Student Launch competition in early April at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. It launched its vehicle 4,403 feet.

The launch vehicle’s name probably best told the story.

The Purdue Space Program Student Launch team was one of 45 college teams that competed in NASA’s Student Launch competition in early April at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. And though Purdue didn’t win any preliminary awards in the competition, it did launch its vehicle 4,403 feet.

So, for the first time since 2013, Purdue’s team launched a rocket and wasn’t disqualified by the competition’s strict guidelines, one of which constrains launch vehicles to altitudes between 3,500 and 6,000 feet.

That meant success for “5th Time’s The Charm.”

“I was extremely happy with the team over the entire year and with the members we took to Alabama for launch week,” says Luke Perrin, a junior in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics and PSP-SL’s acting project manager after taking over for AAE junior Michael Repella, who had a co-op this spring. “Purdue has not had a team this large go down for the NASA Student Launch Competition before. On top of all the other challenges, the team also operated on an extremely tight budget.

“My personal goal for the team was to get to Huntsville and get a rocket successfully flown. I think this goes to show how far the team has come in a year, how dedicated the team is, and the level of leadership the team had on each of its sub teams. There was no way that the team was going to get to Huntsville without many late nights and having the right leadership. I owe a lot of gratitude to each and every sub-team lead.”

Perrin is one of 21 team members who made the trip to Huntsville of about 30 total as part of the PSP-SL, an organization under Purdue Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS)/Purdue Space Program (PSP). Seventeen members of PSP-SL are AAE students. The sub-team leads include avionics team lead Bret Reser, construction team lead Zach Carroll, payload team lead Josh Binion, safety team lead Jory Lyons, funding team lead Sean Heapy, and social team lead Isaac Byely. All but Binion and Reser are AAE students. Victor Barlow, an assistant professor in Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute, is the team's faculty mentor. The team dedicated their launch day vehicle to the Barlow family and Tyler Trent, the Purdue student who died in January after a battle with cancer.

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The Purdue Space Program Student Launch team was one of 45 college teams to compete in the NASA Student Launch competition. 

The team spent Thursday before the competition at a Launch Readiness Review, a hands-on inspection of the full-scale launch vehicle in which the team was asked questions regarding procedures, checklists, and technical statistics. Afterward, the team attended a social event with the other teams in attendance.

On Friday, the team toured NASA facilities in the area, including the Space Launch System (SLS) liquid hydrogen tank test stand, the SLS Thrust Vector Control lab, SLS Propulsion lab, and SLS Avionics lab. Universities in the competition also presented their launch vehicles at a “rocket fair” Friday.

On Saturday, the competition was divided into three groups. Purdue’s team was in the final group. The team’s projected altitude goal — that had to be made about six months ahead of the competition launch day — was 4,950 feet, 547 feet more than their actual height. The top three schools came within 12, 35, and 48 feet of their predicted altitudes.

The custom-built rockets also carried payloads and were scored for them. Of NASA’s two options for colleges to develop and fly, Purdue selected an autonomous rover that deployed from the rocket after landing, drove 10 feet and collected a soil sample. There was a mistake in which a wire was not connected to the payload ejection charge, so once the ejection charge was safely disconnected, Purdue was able to deploy the rest of the rover.

It snapped a string of recent bad luck for SEDS/PSP, which had seven teams enter the NASA Student Launch competition before this year but had only two finish. 

Though Purdue didn’t win any of the awards on site in 2019, Perrin says he thinks there’s potential for the team to win the “rookie award,” considering this was the current team's first trip to Huntsville. The rookie award will be announced in early May, when NASA will announce overall winners, as the final calculations still are under review for accuracy.

“Assuming the team keeps the momentum going into the next year’s competition and with fingers crossed that we receive some more external support, I would say that we have a lot of potential,” Perrin says. “Our team has the drive, the knowledge, a professor's aid, and a great school to support us. Funding is one of the few components to success we have to really work to satisfy. We’re certainly up for that challenge and many more and are looking forward to starting a streak of future successes for Purdue.”