Halfway to Space

By Cooper Eastwood

This blog is an update to Cooper’s first blog: Aiming for Space with a Fully Reusable Rocket

Hi again! I am Cooper Eastwood, an Aeronautical Engineering sophomore and co-investigator of the Embry-Riddle Suborbital Reusable Vehicle. The whole world put itself on pause and everyone felt the effects. I know that at my home in Los Angeles many businesses and everyday workers have been forced inside due to the pandemic. Online learning, commerce, and communication became the new norm. I and many others have witnessed the whole world adapt and change in only a few months. Now almost a year later much has changed but the goal is always the same: to get to space cheaper and more often.

The Embry-Riddle Suborbital Reusable Vehicle (ERAU-SRV) team transitioned completely online during the summer period. Gaurav Nene and I stayed on task even in different parts of the country through video calls and scheduled meetings. Our small integrated team dynamic allowed us an easy transition as we can continue working diligently on the next steps of development whenever necessary. During this time, we submitted the lengthy and necessary documentation for unguided commercial suborbital vehicle launch approval at Spaceport America. We coordinated documentation with the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority. Then in June 2020 we received the launch approval for a future date in 2021. We are taking our two-stage launch vehicle past the Karman line, or 100 kilometers, and to do so we need to launch from an FAA licensed facility. As New Mexico begins the process of allowing more frequent travel to their federal sites, the team will be at Spaceport America to observe the launch facilities and finally meet the ground support members.

Me manufacturing our sustainer fins on a CNC mill

To get the final funding we needed to finish the vehicle. The College of Engineering, the Undergraduate Research Institute, and Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach campus opened an opportunity for student projects to win grant funding by presenting in front of the Board of Alumni. Dr. Ron Madler, Dean of the College of Engineering, extended an invitation for us to further our research and break new ground with this brand-new alumni collaboration. We submitted a proposal to the board, bidding for a chance to present. This contained our preliminary design review, our FAA package, and the AIAA published technical report regarding our avionics. We qualified as one of the top three finalists and in under a week we made our presentation. Once the dust settled, we were awarded a grant to accelerate our work! With this new thrust of momentum and enough funding to purchase the rest of the booster stage, the next step in our engineering method was to verify our vehicle.

We required a launch test of our sustainer to accomplish six objectives: verify performance and our trajectory models, qualify the structural components, validate the recovery system, validate performance of telemetry, gain experience with pre-launch operations, and gain post-launch operations experience. After five days of integration we put the vehicle on the pad at Friends of Amateur Rocketry launch site in Mojave, California.

The ERAU-SRV sustainer takes flight!

On December 19th, 2020 at around 12:30 PM, the rocket was launched and experienced a recovery system failure at apogee which was addressed in a 35-page post-flight report. The sustainer surpassed its goal of 31,666 feet – exactly 6 miles. The vehicle was only partially recovered due to ballistic reentry, however we received two sets of flight data from our identical on-board computers. Every piece of the rocket was sifted from the sand, meticulously inspected, and documented. By finishing the in-depth report we completed five of our six objectives and proved that we could take the step forward on construction of the booster stage to launch at Spaceport America.

Recover and inspection of the rocket underway. We found parts to the GoPro, Spot Tracker, both AIM XTRA computers, as well as all the body components. Due to this inspection we found the root cause of the failure.

Immediately after our test we welcomed a new faculty advisor as well as a member of our team. Our previous faculty advisor Dr. Michael Fabian moved on to government research and Prof. Robert Gerrick, Mechanical Engineering Chair, took the role of our mentor. William Knoblauch, a Mechanical Engineering freshman, also became a member of our team by assisting in post-flight analysis and continuing testing research on flight critical hardware. We are in the process of accepting new members aiming to grow hands on experience with suborbital launch vehicles. As our vehicle and team grow, so do our hopes of surpassing our goals.

Gaurav (left) and Me (right) holding the sustainer right before placing it on the launch rail.

When the previous post left off, we were anticipating a trip to Portland, Oregon to attend the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Student Conference Region VI and present a 30-minute presentation on our avionics system at the conference. This was cancelled only a week before taking place in March 2020 and was postponed until the same time this year. Now after resubmitting the paper to a judge’s panel for review, it was accepted to the 2021 student conference at California State Long Beach and will be taking place in April.

Being a cross-discipline undergraduate research project gives us the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse group of engineers who can all contribute to space flight. As we expect many more space launches, the amount of experimental data gained per flight will be exponential. After a successful launch we will be calling on all students and as well as those considering enrolling at Embry-Riddle Prescott to form ideas, build hardware, and program experiments for the vehicle. These will all be taken to space, an environment that can be exclusively reached repeatedly only at Embry-Riddle. If you have a great idea and a goal, you really can get to space with the College of Engineering and the Undergraduate Research Institute’s backing.

Aiming for Space with a Fully Reusable Rocket

Hi, I’m Cooper Eastwood, a rising Sophomore Aerospace Engineer focusing in Astronautics. Throughout my first year at Embry-Riddle I was given the opportunity to construct a suborbital launch vehicle alongside Gaurav Nene. My story, as well as many other Embry-Riddle students, begins long before attending college. I have been on the journey to reach space since my early days of high school and my passion has brought me very close to my goal. Through the Undergraduate Research Institute’s backing and Dr. Michael Fabian’s support we are swiftly approaching a final launch date. Our project, the Embry-Riddle Suborbital Reusable Vehicle (ERAU-SRV) is centralized around the ideas of having as little oversight as possible, a small integrated team, and to radically change the way students pursue rocketry research.

Cooper (left) and Gaurav (right) working inside of the AXFAB machine shop.

The purpose of this research is to demonstrate the use of commercial propulsion and flight systems in a fully reusable launch vehicle for reliable low-cost access to space. The rocket, standing at 11ft tall, will be a testament to a cheaper and more frequent launch strategy than comparable commercial and university developed SRVs in its altitude range. Furthermore, the gross lift off weight of the rocket is projected to be only 50 lbs. and will reach apogee at 440,000 ft and reach a maximum velocity of Mach 5, pushing the limits for university level rocketry speed, altitude, and launch rate.

Here we are undertaking a new experience machining the very tip of the rocket out of titanium, the only part to be made of this rare material.

Nearing the end of the first semester the team invested weeks of testing for our onboard recovery and deployment system. This was pursued with the intention of establishing set up and take down procedures as well as a familiarity with the operations. These systems utilize barometric sensors, or atmospheric pressure sensors, to dictate velocity and ultimately deploy a parachute when the acceleration reaches zero. To test these systems in a controlled pressure environment we utilized the state-of-the-art technology in the Aerospace Experimentation and Fabrication Building (AXFAB) and the new Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) building. After talking with professors and the EagleSat club, we operated the vacuum chambers located in both buildings to simulate high altitude atmospheric conditions. While referencing testing safety standards, we placed the battery and telemetric flight computer into the vacuum chambers and conducted more than thirteen tests over three weeks.

This is the inside of the AXFAB vacuum chamber with the electronics system on an improvised tray. This is where a majority of tests took place, assisted by the sensors inside which gave us pressure readings.

The data we gathered included: voltage outputs of two black powder ignition wires, barometric accuracy, programming and data quirks or anomalies, GPS signal lock strength and tracking, and gyroscopic orientation sensitivity. Both excited and confident with the positive testing results, I compiled our outcomes into an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) formatted paper which was then published into their most recent journal. After the full paper’s submission, we were accepted to speak at the AIAA Region IV conference at the University of Portland and given thirty-minutes of stage time. We were looking forward to spending two days at this conference in late March and discussing our findings as well as our greater project ideas with our peers. However, this was cancelled due to COVID-19 and will be rescheduled in late 2020.

The purpose of making a procedures checklist is to cut down human error. This is especially useful for the day of launch because of anxiety, or what’s called “go fever”, can lead to detrimental mistakes. Sticking to a script and lots of practice is the best way to mitigate errors. Most corporations have entire teams dedicated to their operations; there they hammer out all the kinks in the road from construction to launch. Launch operations is vital to any rocket’s success, so we have started as early as possible to ensure a smooth launch and to maintain professionalism in the heat of the moment.

Our hands-on work was recognized with a photoshoot for investors. Here we are using a manual machine utilizing the skills learned with our time at AXFAB.

Our design had been completed in October of 2019 and we sent our manufacturing requests to AXFAB. This is where our aluminum components can be machined to AS9100 standards. Starting the beginning the second semester, we dedicated hours a day to work in AXFAB’s machine shop to help speed things along and adjust designs where necessary. Being a two-person team, we both had the knowledge and authority to request parts to be manufactured. Both us and Dr. Fabian believe in a small team approach to this work so we can easily streamline part alterations where necessary, without having to meet up and approve of every detail. With hours a day for a few months being dedicated to machine shop time we found ourselves learning tricks of the machining trade from Jared Vanetta, the machinist, in AXFAB. He has been integral in our manufacturing process as well as a mentor in our designs. The hands-on experience we got were unparalleled in any other classroom study and I found myself sitting in on a ME300 machine shop lab.

After discussions with Dr. Sensmeier and Dr. Fabian we incorporated our URI project into an official class: AE 399, a 3-credit course. It gives us an opportunity to finish the project on campus over summer while earning credit that counts toward our degrees. This was a great moment for us as our extracurricular time and effort spent was recognized by our professors and department.

The hands-on approach by professors certainly accelerated this project’s success. I find myself getting more interested in engineering every day and I hope to pursue this as a lifelong career. A note to incoming students; if you have a great idea and a goal, you can really go far with the College of Engineering’s dedication to their students and with the backing of URI.