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Rocket Team competes after 5 year hiatus

The Mizzou AIAA rocket team puts Truman II together at the 7th Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), in Green River, Utah.

After a five-year interval of inactivity, students from the University of Missouri College of Engineering’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) team in late June entered a rocket in the 7th Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), in Green River, Utah.

Competing in the basic category, the team’s solid fuel rocket, Truman II, was required to carry a 10 pound payload and tasked to reach an apogee (flight peak altitude) between 5,000 and 13,000 feet, attempting to come as close to 10,000 feet as possible.

The launch wasn’t flawless, but team members were not disappointed. With opponents from as far away as Montreal and Brazil, Truman II came in fourth out of seven entries in the basic category.

“I feel good about the flight,” said Zach Blickhan a mechanical engineering senior who served as the team’s lead engineer. He blames the flight’s glitches on the rocket’s asymmetry.

“We built the rocket with limited manufacturing abilities. We did it all by hand so it wasn’t nearly as accurate as it would have been if it were held to machine precision,” Blickhan said.

Rocket build-team colleague Jonathan Jennings, a mechanical engineering junior, explained that when rockets in the competition reach apogee, a drogue parachute is deployed for stability, but when Truman II’s drogue chute deployed, gases leaked into the rocket’s controls and disabled its altimeter. “We couldn’t tell its altitude, so we couldn’t measure when to deploy the main chute,” Jennings said. “We recovered the rocket and it was in great condition, considering it had fallen approximately 10 thousand feet.”

Judges deemed the vehicle, constructed of carbon fiber materials, recoverable and reusable, one of the criteria used to rank flights. Jennings said that some teams competing in the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association-sponsored event were flying fourth and fifth generation rockets.

“One team had a budget of $21,000 and we had less than $1,000,” said Jennings. Both he and Blickhan agreed that the judges were impressed by what the team had done on such a limited budget. Working with limited resources meant there could be no test run of Truman II as the team could not risk damaging their sole prototype.

“We had a one-shot opportunity,” said Blickhan.

“Our launch was awesome,” said Jennings. No one had a perfect launch — around four rockets exploded, some were never found and most shredded in half or didn’t deploy main chutes.”

The level of knowledge the fledgling team displayed also impressed competition judges.

“Starting from nothing, having no budget and getting the rocket off the launchpad – you’re a superstar,” said Jennings.

Steve Nagel, a former NASA astronaut who is working as a retention specialist in the MU College of Engineering, served as the team’s adviser for the competition, a circumstance that did not go unnoticed.

“Because not everyone had launched their rockets by the awards banquet, they gave out funny awards, and we got the coolest adviser award for bringing an astronaut to a rocket competition,” said Jennings.

“For me this was a completely new experience, despite my previous career with NASA and the Space Shuttle, I had never worked with rockets of this type,” said Nagel. “It was a big learning experience for all of us and the team did a great job, especially for their first time in the competition. I have no doubt we will do better next year based on what we learned from this experience.

“It was enjoyable just being with the students and getting to know them — even on the van ride out and back,” he added. “We have outstanding students at Mizzou and it was a real pleasure spending time with the team.”

A local rocket enthusiast, Dr. Mark Grant, who also is president of the local chapter of Tripoli Rocketry, offered expert advise and supplied some spare parts to the team.

“He’s serious about rocketry,” said Jennings. “We couldn’t have done it without him.”

The team already is planning for the 2013 competition, but both Blickhan and Jennings believe the groundwork laid this year will ensure an even more successful launch next June.

Blickhan, who was primarily responsible for the design of Truman II, worked in MATLAB and set up a graphical user interface for future team members to easily calculate variables such as drag, velocity, acceleration and altitude at apogee.

“I’ve thoroughly documented everything,” Blickhan said. “Hopefully, our groundwork will help future teams accomplish even more.

“This fall, we’ll build our own motor, nozzle and solid propellant, enough to get a true feel for rocket science,” he added. The biggest thing we got out of this experience was knowledge.”