Purdue Space Program's Student Launch team practices 'grit,' poised to perform in NASA competition

An unsuccessful test launch Feb. 15 could have derailed a year's worth of work for PSP-SL. But the interdisciplinary team didn't let that happen.
PSP-SL team
Purdue Space Program's Student Launch team includes students from a variety of majors and academic years, ranging from freshmen to seniors. 

It almost was like slow motion, watching the pieces fall to the hard, cold ground. The payload was dismantled. The lower frame of the rocket was nowhere to be seen.

The members of Purdue Space Program’s Student Launch team needed a minute to absorb it all.

On Feb. 15, less than two months before NASA’s official launch week for student launch teams, a minor miscue was going to lead to a major rebuild.

Was this unsuccessful full-scale launch going to prevent the team, one of only 46 in the College and University Division selected for the competition in Huntsville, Ala., from traveling and competing?

The resounding response: No.

After the initial shock and dejection wore off — it took a couple hours — students got back to work. They’d invested too many hours — nearly a year on this project — to give up. They’d invested too much in each other — relationships built beyond the common bond of the project, real friendships forged — to give up.

Simply, this group was too persistent, too strong-willed, to stop pursuing this task together.

“I think it does show the ‘grit’ Mitch Daniels talks about, how determined our team is this year,” project manager Luke Perrin said.

The unsuccessful launch happened because of a connection issue. A Quick Link connects the lower half of the vehicle (shock cord, drogue parachute and lower airframe) to the avionics bay. After initial vehicle assembly, the team had to pull the linkage apart to repack the parachute. But when it was repacked, the Quick Link never was fully reattached, and the lower assembly separated from the avionics-upper-airframe assembly at apogee.

That night, Perrin, a senior in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and team mentor Vic Barlow sent emails and got on the phone to seek financial support needed for a recovery. By Monday, PSP-SL had the money necessary for the team to rebuild and re-fly.

“When we saw the rocket come back down ballistic like that and break and we ended up analyzing and determining with very high confidence that this was just this really small, overlooked issue that could easily be fixed, I feel like the mindset of the team at that point was our team has put in enough work this year to deserve more than this. We are a better team than a small, little, tiny issue like this,” said assistant project manager Mike Repella, a senior in AAE. “What we did to address that is we have a safety subteam within Student Launch, and they effectively went into overdrive improving check lists. We had checklists that were to be used for launch purposes, but they were low detail. In response to the failed launch, they really, really hammered out making those useful for the team, and the team really realized the use as a result, and they helped so much in that second launch.”

The upside of the disaster? The vehicle improved significantly upon the rebuild.

After an unsuccessful full-scale launch Feb. 15, PSP-SL had a second vehicle demonstration in March. This is the reflight recovery.

The payload was about 80 percent destroyed, payload team co-lead Josh Binion said, but it was completely rebuilt by the following Saturday. That included a new drone, the system for holding the drone in the rocket and all of the electronics being re-fabricated.

“It was just a testament to the people on payload team, putting in a lot time,” said Binion, a senior in ECE. “And also just a testament to how much groundwork we had laid before that. We had worked for months and months and months to iteratively get to a point where we could just rebuild and we were fine.

“As we’ve been working on it since we’ve rebuilt it, honestly, the rebuild ended up being an even better version of the system we had before because we had learned from all the mistakes in the design process along the way.”

When the team performed another full-scale launch on March 7, there was, blissfully, no drama. Only beauty at the brilliant streak in the sky and the nominal landing. And plenty of high fives.

With that successful launch, PSP-SL was prepared for the competition — and most of the team was geared up to head Marshall Space Flight Center on April 1 for early tests before the actual competition on April 4.

That plan changed March 13 when NASA announced it would be replacing the year’s in-person event with home-based and virtual events, due to health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 virus. So instead of 64 teams, including 18 middle school and high school teams, displaying their work to a large group and capping the week with an awards ceremony, the teams now would need to make arrangements to launch and record results near campus.

PSP-SL didn’t flinch.

It already had planned to launch its rocket regardless of NASA’s decision, but at least this way there’s still a chance to hit goals officially.

This is the ninth Purdue team that has qualified for NASA’s Student Launch, but only two of the previous eight had successful launches. Last year, the team finished 12th out of 45 teams in the College Division. There is little doubt among the 54-member interdisciplinary team — about 65 percent of whom are AAE students — that they’ll fare better in 2020.

The team is targeting a top-5 finish in a competition that requires teams to design, build, test and fly a payload on a solid-propelled rocket to a predicted apogee chosen between 3,500 and 6,000 feet. Teams are evaluated and given points and awards in nearly a dozen categories, including an flight apogee vs. predicted apogee, vehicle design, social media presence and more.

The payload element of the competition is a major highlight. NASA requires the payload be retained throughout the flight. Post flight, it is to deploy, find and collect 10 milliliters of simulated lunar ice from a sample location and navigate 10 feet with the sample safety stored aboard the vehicle. But the how was left up to teams.

payload cad
The entire payload system (CAD render)

Based on its experience in last year's competition, PSP-SL realized a drone would be more efficient than a rover to collect samples. The ground was especially uneven at NASA Marshall’s site, making it difficult terrain for two-wheeled rovers. So this year’s payload group opted for a system with three main components. The first is the drone itself, a quad-copter that can fold up in the rocket. The second is a retention and deployment system that is the interface between the drone and the rocket. It holds the nose cone of the rocket to the upper part of the airframe, secures the UAV throughout the flight, expands the rocket to expose the drone upon landing, orients the drone and “unlocks” the drone so it can fly. And, finally, a ground user interface called “ground control station” (GCS) that sends initial commands to the drone and retention and deployment system to turn on, gets live telemetry from the drone and acts as a “mission control.”

A unique part of this competition is the NASA reviews conducted at various steps along the way. And, consistently, that ground control system was of special interest to NASA personnel, PSP-SL members said. Perrin said NASA reps are “extremely excited” to see PSP-SL’s GCS in action, saying no other team has done something like that to that degree in the competition. During every review stage, NASA praised the team’s computer-aided design (CAD) work, team members said.

“A lot of (the payload design) came naturally from the problems we have to solve and this is how we’re going to go about doing that,” Binion said. “It’s been to cool to watch the design evolve. One of the things we really emphasized this year is CAD. In late January, I came into the lab, and we had just done a bunch of construction and things were really starting to come together. I just had this moment, where I’m looking at the payload system sitting on the table, and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is exactly what I’ve seen in our CAD renderings.’ It was awesome.”

Every step of the way, from the Request for Proposal to Preliminary Design Review to Critical Design Review to Flight Readiness Review, Perrin, Repella and Binion have seen how much growth PSP-SL has made since they first joined the team three years ago. It’s made what they’ve accomplished to this point on “Project Casper,” named after AAE alumni astronaut John Casper, even more special.

“We’re seeing the improvement in the quality in everything, what we’re making but also in our reports and presentations. Everything, we’ve just raised to the next level,” Binion said. “Saying finishing top five out of some-60 schools, that’s ambitious, but I think knowing where we were last year and seeing how far we’ve come, we would be selling ourselves short if we aimed for anything less than that.”

There certainly seem to be reasons for confidence.

At Preliminary Design Review, the team predicted an apogee of 4,325 feet. The successful flight in early March reached an apogee of 4,613 feet, and simulations using launch day conditions predicted an apogee of 4,666 feet. Even though it was about 300 feet from the prediction — the top three places in last year's College Division Altitude Award were within 50 feet — the team still was pleased because it had yet to add the final paint design to the vehicle, which will reduce apogee slightly.

March 7 vehicle demonstration reflight launch

Under the direction of social and outreach team lead Skyler Harlow, a mechanical engineering student, the team amped up its STEM outreach. After reaching fewer than 300 kids last year, the team reached 1,281 students this year, a key point in the competition that values not only technical design but “inspiring the next generation,” Perrin said.

The three 250-plus-page reports to NASA were crisp, detailed and professional, evidence of lessons learned and knowledge gained over the last three years for these seniors.

The team hopes soon, it’ll learn how that experience, combined with the influx of talented freshmen to the organization, a boost in numbers and strong leadership, will pay off.

NASA extended the flight window to May 25 for teams to complete their competition flight at their home fields. The “new” competition requires teams to create a video to demonstrate their payload completing the challenge, though that demonstration doesn’t need to occur at the same place as the launch field, as it would have in Huntsville. A Post Launch Assessment Review will be required that will include the video link to the payload summary and flight certification forms. Even with the setbacks, the team still is focusing on flying the final vehicle and payload by early to mid-April.

A virtual awards ceremony will be held in June. Hopefully before all of PSP-SL’s members start internships and full-time positions, otherwise depraving them of the opportunity to celebrate, together. Would be nice, after everything they’ve been through, together.

“Our team culture is really great,” Perrin said. “Part of that is all fun and games, but on a more serious level, I’ve had some really good, deep conversations with people on the team. It’s been really nice to, seriously, be a team.”

Repella, sitting next to Perrin, nodded. And jumped in.

“It just feels like going to hang out with a group a friends rather than an obligation,” he said.

Perrin’s turn to nod.

“I think that’s an exact reason of when our flight was unsuccessful on Feb. 15 we were like, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s keep going,’ ” he said.

Repella added, “You don’t want to just stop hanging out with your friend group.”

rocket cad
CAD render of the team's final vehicle design and paint scheme