NASA launch competition results are in

On April 21, Northwest Indian College’s rocket team, the RPGs, put its rocket to the ultimate test at NASA’s University Student Launch flight competition in Huntsville, Alabama. 

The students competed with college and university teams from across the nation to see whose rocket could get closest to a 1-mile altitude goal and safely return its onboard science or engineering payload to Earth. Thirty-six teams took part, though six faced mechanical or technical issues and did not launch.

The RPGs and the remaining teams faced a challenge of their own. After all of the nervous anticipation and excitement going into Saturday’s scheduled launch, the event was postponed by a day due to muddy conditions at the launch site.

Gary Brandt, team advisor and NWIC computer science instructor, said team members were both disappointed in the postponement and also relieved.

“We were cold, cold, cold, and exhausted,” Brandt said. “At least when it was rescheduled we were able to get some rest.”

When Sunday finally came, students were ready and it showed. Brandt said they were happy with the way their rocket flew, and with the deployment of another element of the launched rocket: their quadcopter.

Brandt said the success of the team’s quadcopter shows that while the RPGs represent a school without an engineering program and don’t have access to expensive, top-of-the-line material, they can perform on equal footing with any college or university student.

“For instance, another big-name school also built a quadcopter,” Brandt said. “It was engineered from aluminum and very high tech. The arms folded up and required heavy springs and locking mechanisms to keep them in place. Our arms fold down using mouse trap springs and the motors help move the arms up and lock them in place. It’s very simple and it works.”

Brandt said the RPGs’ design caused a graduate student engineer from another team to slap his forehead and say, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’

“Then he rushed over to our display to examine our quad,” Brandt said. “So, our students not only perform equally, but sometimes better.”

Brandt wouldn't know exactly how his students did in the competition until May 17, but he did know that the RPGs outscored MIT – along with a couple of other notable engineering schools – again this year in the launch portion of the competition.

The flight competition is one of the last elements of the University Student Launch competition, which is part of NASA’s Student Launch Project (SLP). Overall, the competition is an eight-month – one-academic-year – commitment that requires teams to submit a series of reports and reviews, develop a website, engage in education outreach in their local community, and provide a timeline, a budget and other requirements. So before NASA could rank participating schools, it had to look over eight months' worth of material from each team.

The reports and reviews are similar to NASA's technical review process. As in that process, SLP teams must complete a Preliminary Design Review, Critical Design Review, Flight Readiness Review and Post-Launch Assessment Review. In addition, teams must successfully complete an initial and a final Launch Readiness.

Last year NWIC’s team took 12th out of 43 teams in the overall competition. Team members hoped to do as well, if not better this year.

Several weeks after the Huntsville launch, Brandt received an email from NASA. The rankings had been decided. RPGs took 17th out of 36 teams. While they hadn't ranked as high this year, Brandt said the team did very well against a tougher bunch of competitors.

The RPGs also participated in the First Nations Launch competition April 24-28 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Brandt reported that the flights in that competition went perfectly. He expects they will learn the results of this competition around June 1.

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’ entered both the tribal college and the AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society) divisions of the competition, with a separate team for each.