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Cadet-Designed Rocket Blasts Off From California

US Air Force Academy Cadets prepare the rocket for launch.
by Staff Writers
US Air Force Academy CO (SPX) Apr 20, 2006
Cadets launched their fourth cadet-designed sounding rocket April 6 from the Navy's Point Magu Missile Range near San Nicholas Island, Calif. The launch results provided many lessons, including some that won't be taught in a textbook, say course instructors.

"The rocket lifted off quickly and accelerated, but after approximately three seconds, an apparent structural failure caused the rocket to deviate from its course and quickly tumble," said Lt. Col. Ralph Sandfry, Systems Division Chief, Department of Astronautical Engineering.

Much of the rocket was recovered, including the motor case, one attached fin, nozzle and the avionics section. The nose cone, payload section, and other three fins were not recovered. The two ground stations received data indicating the rocket reached an altitude of approximately 3,500 feet and experience maximum accelerations of nearly 38gs.

Preliminary analysis of the data, video, and recovered hardware suggest some type of structural failure possibly near the nosecone or payload section, but considerable additional inquiry into the anomaly is required.

The analysis and final briefing will be completed by early May, but the cadets still have a lot of data and video images to look through before they can be sure what went wrong.

"Although the program's technical goals were not met (i.e. the target altitude of 330,000 feet), I think that the program was a success overall," said Cadet 1st Class Chris Roks, program manager.

"You have to remember that the real goal of the program is to give the cadets experience with designing, building and managing a large astronautics program that you can't learn from books. From that standpoint, I think the program was a complete success. We were able to participate in a program that most college students will never have the opportunity to do."

The instructor considers the launch a success, as well, despite the technical problems.

"As seen recently in the space industry, the initial development of a new rocket is filled with uncertainty and problems are common � this is not a simple or easy task. But the lessons of this program - the technical rigor, discipline, professionalism, and attention to detail - have an irreplaceable impact on these future officers as they begin their Air Force careers," said Colonel Sandfry.

The 17-cadet team will now conduct an investigation and present their results and recommendations in the end-of-semester final brief and report.

"Our avionics system performed great and we were able to receive telemetry (including live video from the rocket) until it went off course," said Cadet Roks. "I think that is a huge achievement considering how complex the avionics system was."

Pending the results of the post-flight analysis, FalconLAUNCH V will likely continue efforts to identify and understand the anomaly, redesign as necessary, and attempt another launch from San Nicholas Island in Spring 2007.

The FalconLaunch program completes its fourth academic year in May. The program focuses on learning space by doing space. Each year, cadets apply systems engineering processes to design, build, test, and fly a solid-propellant sounding rocket.

The first launch, in 2003, sent a 90-lb rocket to an altitude of 30,000 feet. The 2004 launch incorporated several new features and reached Mach 1 and 17,000 feet. The 2005 FalconLaunch rocket reached Mach 1.4 and an altitude of more than 18,000 feet, although it carried only 30 percent of its full propellant load.

"If they had used the full fuel load, it would have gone much further than the Army's range would allow," said Cadet Roks. "We were able to use the full amount this year because we were launching into the Pacific Ocean."

FalconLaunch provides hands-on experience for cadets, while applying a high level of practical engineering to solve real-world problems. Currently, the program emphasizes developing a basic capability to fly small Air Force and DoD scientific and engineering payloads on a yearly basis.

The end technical goal of FalconLaunch is to design a reproducible system capable of flying a 5 lb. Payload to an altitude of more than 330,000 feet (100 km)�suborbital flights to the edge of space.

Technical mentorship and financial support for the FalconLaunch program is provided by the Air Force Research Laboratory's Propulsion Directorate and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The project also creates business opportunities within the space industry. The cadet-designed composite motor case for the 150 lb rocket was built by TK Corporation of Brigham City, Utah, while the 95.4 lb. Solid rocket fuel was cast and cured by Vulcan Systems of Penrose, Colo.

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