NWIC rocket club taking off to national competitions

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April will be a busy month of travel and competition for Northwest Indian College’s rocket club, the RPGs. The club will be in Huntsville, Alabama April 17-21 for NASA’s University Student Launch Initiative competition. A few days later, they will travel to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the First Nations Launch.

This will be the team’s third year participating in the NASA completion – last year they took 12th out of 41 teams.

It’s the team’s fourth year participating in the First Nations competition, which they have taken first place in for the past two years. This year, club members’ ambition led them to enter both the tribal college and the AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society) divisions of the competition, with a separate team for each.

Gary Brandt, NWIC computer/technology instructor and club advisor, said the RPGs decided to enter both divisions this year both because they had a large enough team, and because newer club members can try out their skills in the tribal college division, which is a less demanding division.

Other than funding, which hasn’t been great this year, Brandt said the RPGs are doing really well in their preparation for the competitions.

“We’ve successfully launched our NASA rocket five times so far,” Brandt said. “And we have two very good quadcopter pilots.”

The club is made up of 14 active members and all will be attending at least one of the launches, Brandt said. Most members are working toward a direct transfer associate degree at NWIC and are leaning toward becoming Native educators. One student has been accepted to John Hopkins University to pursue her interest in becoming a pediatrician. Several are in the IT associate’s program.

“It’s a pretty diverse group,” Brandt said. “This is an amazing bunch of students. All are focused and eager.”

They’re so eager, in fact, that they decided to commit to a technology this year never before used in a NASA competition: a multi-rotor vehicle (MV).

Brandt said that the club’s MV, is working great. Here’s how the MV works: As the rocket descends from its 5,280-foot peak altitude, the MV will deploy and use its autopilot to tow the rocket back to the launch area. The idea sprung from previous launches that would end with students walking long distances – sometimes miles – to retrieve rockets after they had landed.

“The MV – quadcopter – is pretty exciting,” Brandt said. “It is very stable; the legs fold and unfold as designed and it flies really well.”

Brandt said he is optimistic about the NASA competition and hopes the First Nations competition will give the club its third back-to-back first place finish. 

The team from Utah State University will probably be the RPGs biggest rival at the NASA competition. At the First Nations competition, University of Minnesota will be the biggest rival in the AISES division and Navajo Technical College will be the team to watch in the tribal college division, Brandt said.