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Rocket Launch Showcases CSULB’s Student Ingenuity

Published: June 15, 2009

When the rocket Prospector 10 (P-10) pointed toward the sky on April 18, a handful of CSULB engineering students, professors and others hoped for a safe landing on the flat, dry and barren surface that was its destination.

No, it wasn’t headed for the moon or Mars. But as Prospector-10 (the “Prospector” name is derived from CSULB’s 49er mascot) rested on its launching pad in the desolate Mojave Desert, it represented the end to the latest successful rocket project within CSULB’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) program.

Like the other launches, working on P-10 also further developed the hands-on knowledge of the students and professors who work within CSULB’s renowned MAE program.

“It has really been a great learning process for us over the years, and we are now quite experienced at these launches,” said Eric Besnard, a professor in the MAE department and lead of the rocket program prior to the launch. “The time it takes to prepare for a launch depends on what your goals and objectives are. P-10 was an entirely new rocket. We designed and built everything from scratch. We are also using a very fancy new engine called an aerospike rocket engine, which took a long time to develop.”

Besnard, who has taught upper-division and graduate aerospace design and space systems engineering at CSULB since 1995, has been named the recipient of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics 2009 Faculty Adviser Award.

The latest rocket project began in 2006 and was originally funded by a $300,000 grant from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). However, after several development static fire tests, including one last year of the fully integrated vehicle where a gasket failed and burnt the end of the rocket, the program had to use the remaining MDA funds to purchase some replacement components. The launch, the refurbishment of the launch vehicle, repairs, preparations and the launch itself were funded by the university, Garvey Spacecraft Corp. (GSC) and money received for student support from NASA’s California Space Grant Consortium.

“We have had cases where a test failure turned out to be an important learning lesson, rather than a program killer,” explained John Garvey, founder and CEO of GSC. “This is how rockets evolved in the 1950s and 60s and we try to keep that spirit alive for the students who get involved.”

The Little Engine That Could
An aerospike engine is a type of rocket engine that maintains its propulsive efficiency across a wide range of altitudes through the use of an aerospike nozzle. A vehicle with an aerospike engine uses 25 to 30 percent less fuel at low altitudes, where most missions have the greatest need for thrust.

Aerospike engine technology is not new. Space agencies have been considering its use since the 1950s, according to Besnard. At one time, the technology was a strong contender for the space shuttle’s main engine. However, no aerospike engine is in commercial production and the best large-scale aerospikes have only been in the ground-testing phase.

“In 2001, we began to develop our own aerospike design,” said Besnard. “Then, in 2003, we were the first in the world to accomplish a flight test of an aerospike rocket, which garnered CSULB’s College of Engineering enormous industry and collegiate recognition.”

CSULB’s rockets are typically 10, 18 or 25 inches in diameter and 13 to 30 feet long. They are fueled by ethanol and oxidized by liquid oxygen. Since 2001, the MAE has built 14 rockets and has launched them nearly 20 times.

It’s All About Learning
According to CSULB/MAE alumnus Jeff Overbeek, the rocket program was crucial during his education and tremendously helpful to his current career.

“The rocket project was an instrumental part of my education. The practical application of traditionally taught theories supplemented the engineering classroom experience,” said Overbeek, a launch operations engineer at SpaceX Florida. “Formal engineering curriculums alone simply don’t fully prepare students for the infamous ‘real world’ that professors warn us about.”

Overbeek is one of many students who have studied in the MAE at CSULB in its California Launch Vehicle Education Initiative (CALVEIN) program that launched in 2001 in partnership with GSC. CALVEIN was the name of the first grant for its rocket program. The name has stuck ever since.

From the beginning, CALVEIN was designed to integrate research and development into a learning experience for CSULB students. The team that prepares for a launch typically consists of GSC personnel, engineering professors, freshmen to graduate students, alumni, and partnering companies and agencies. In addition, 15 mentors from the industry work with the team on the launch vehicle and mentor students.

“The experiences and knowledge passed on by mentors gave me a distinct advantage in the market. Writing procedures, turning wrenches, getting greasy, machining hardware, implementing quality control standards, and working as part of the team, is a short summary of the real-world experiences I brought from the rocket project to the industry,” added Overbeek. “Early on, the scholarships literally allowed me to stay in school during rough financial times. It later led to a well-paid three-year internship. Undoubtedly, the rocket project is a major factor that led to where I am today.”

Rocket Launch with Besnard
Photo by David J. Nelson
Prospector 10 (P-10) points toward the sky.

After graduation, MAE students work all over the world at companies such as The Aerospace Corp., The Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. on projects that involve spacecraft, launch vehicles, design and propulsion, research and testing, to name a few.

“This is the only place in the world where students do the work end to end — the design, the manufacturing and then the launch of the systems,” said Besnard. “This is very well recognized in the industry, which greatly enhances the reputation of the university when it comes to overall aerospace programs. This plays a big impact on us being able to attract interested young students who will do a great job now and in their futures.”

GSC’s contributions to learning and student success both in the classroom and in the work force are extensive.

“We’ve got some real [student] veterans now who have been through half a dozen launches and understand better than 99 percent of their peers what it takes to put a new vehicle into the air,” said Garvey. “One of my priorities going forward is to bring in enough future work to keep them on board with us after they graduate.”

‘We Can’t Go It Alone’
Over the years, most of MAE’s rocket program funding has come primarily from government agencies. Besides NASA and the Missile Defense Agency, the MAE has exchanged quality but low-cost research and development for funding with such organizations as the California Space Authority (CSA), the Department of Labor and the U.S. Air Force.

MAE also partners with private companies, but often in the form of collaborations funded by external grants or contracts. Its primary industrial partner over the years has been GSC.

Last year, a GSC/CSULB team developed and flew P-12A as the final project under the initiative Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development (WIRED). The program was administered by the CSA on behalf of the California Employment Development Department and the U.S. Department of Labor. Two months before that launch, the MAE also partnered with GSC to launch P-9A under a project with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate at Edwards Air Force Base.

Garvey believes that one of the most beneficial aspects of working with an academic partner like CSULB is that GSC is able to be more aggressive, yet safe, relative to the kinds of technical risks that the CSULB/GSC partnership takes on compared to “big aerospace.” He also believes technical risk can lead to “bigger payoffs” and fun.

“Our joint program is fairly unique in that it covers the entire spectrum of design, development and actually the flight testing of rockets featuring liquid propulsion,” he said. “The technical challenges that we and Professor Besnard and his students are working on are at the cutting edge in a number of areas.

“Two examples are the first in-flight use of the liquid oxygen (LOX)/methane propellant combination and the aerospike engines designed under Professor Besnard’s leadership,” Garvey continued. “There are other universities that might have a tighter focus on particular aspects of propulsion research and/or more extensive facilities and sponsorship, but it’s safe to say that there is not another program in this country that combines all the elements that we are addressing at CSULB.”

CALVEIN was also created to launch CSULB in the space industry. In the late 1990s, the university was engaged with local aerospace companies, but primarily in aeronautics with McDonnell Douglas before the company was purchased by Boeing.

“We wanted to have more space-related activities that students would be able to work on. So we started CALVEIN. It’s been our umbrella initiative ever since,” said Besnard. “The success of CALVEIN enables us to partner with companies to address the specific projects that are of interest to them. GSC has been a significant partner with us over the years.”

One example of how the MAE works with companies to test hardware is the 10 CMC thrusters, which circled the plug of the aerospike engine on P-10. Built as part of the combustion chamber directly before the nozzle of an aerospike engine, the thrusters are made of an advanced ceramic matrix composite material called carbon/silicon carbide (C/SiC). Designed and manufactured offsite by HyperTherm Inc., the C/SiC and its high-temperature (2,200 Celsius) capabilities were tested in flight for the first time on P-10.

“The trouble in aerospace is everybody is reluctant to take risks,” said Besnard. “So the C/SiC composite is a new technology that has been new for awhile. However, it has not been flight tested because nobody wants to take the risk of putting it into a new system. That’s why what we do here is so important. Our research and development capabilities enable us to do flight tests for a fraction of what companies like Lockheed or Boeing are able to do. This is a win-win situation for everyone involved.”