Vanderbilt student rocketeers have won NASA’s Orbital-ATK University Student Launch competition for the fourth year in a row. They had to beat out 40 other university teams in the yearlong national competition in order to achieve this “four-peat.”
NASA announced the results of the competition May 12. Teams from the University of Louisville and Cornell University took second and third place.
“This makes our rocketry group the most successful team in Vanderbilt history,” said Amrutur Anilkumar, professor of the practice of aerospace and mechanical engineering and director of the Vanderbilt Aerospace Design Laboratory (VADL). “That is particularly significant because this contest combines academics and competition, which are the twin towers that define a university.”
The student launch competition is a NASA-conducted and aerospace industry-evaluated engineering design challenge built around a NASA mission. It is an intense eight-month contest involving payload and rocket designs, project reports, design reviews, outreach activities and website design, followed by a grand finale launch in April. This year’s challenge was to design rockets that can fly up to an altitude of 5,280 feet and carry a scientific payload that supports the development of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built.
According to Anilkumar, the secret to the Vanderbilt team’s success is two-fold: the quality and enthusiasm of the students involved and the manner in which the program is structured.
The program started nine years ago when aerospace engineering was in a doldrums. With the end of the shuttle project, NASA lost its ability to put astronauts in orbit, and universities were scaling back their aerospace programs. Meanwhile, private space exploration companies such as Space-X, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic were just getting started, and their achievements had begun to spark a resurgence of student interest in space.
The program had a modest start as a student club. “Because we started from scratch, we were able to build layer upon layer of complexity, with students’ skills clearly in mind,” Anilkumar said.
These efforts were aided by a sudden boost in student quality that occurred at Vanderbilt around 2005, the result of major institutional changes in student recruitment, both undergraduate and graduate, combined with the introduction of need-blind admissions, according to the engineer.
At the same time, the advisers discovered that today’s students are not content with just producing small cogs for bigger wheels but want to design entire systems. This was a perfect fit with the NASA student launch competition, which gave students the opportunity to design the rocket and its innovative payload using the latest engineering tools.
It also led the advisers to incorporate training in systems engineering, an interdisciplinary field of engineering focused on designing and managing complex engineering systems. This is a subject that engineering students aren’t usually exposed to until they get a job.
“Because of this approach, every member of the team understands the project forward and backward – something that has really impressed NASA evaluators,” Anilkumar said.
The fact that the program has not been affiliated with a specific academic department, combined with the systems engineering approach, has also allowed the rocketeers to take advantage of the expertise in a number of university programs.
These include the Institute for Software Integrated Systems, a national leader in cyber-physical systems that combines computers with sensors and mechanical systems; the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics, where the latest technology is used to develop the next generation of prosthetic devices; the Laboratory for Systems Integration and Reliability, where nondestructive test procedures to evaluate complex materials and structures are being developed; and Peabody College’s Center for Science Outreach, which specializes in STEM outreach to Middle Tennessee schools.
These relationships have allowed the program to attract a dedicated group of graduate students to act as mentors for the stream of undergraduates who participate. Next year, 4 percent of the engineering seniors have signed up to do senior design projects related to the program.
One reason for the program’s continued popularity could be the success its alumni have had finding jobs after they graduate. Out of 60 alumni, 35 have gone on to aerospace engineering positions – eight at Space-X.
“Our students want to make a difference. They want to build something from scratch. They want to take charge,” Anilkumar said. “We give them the opportunity to do what they want, along with the training and tools they need to succeed. And the experience they get is exactly what the industry is looking for. That’s why the program works so well.”