A group of Fresno City College students is going up against some of the biggest names in American engineering schools in a NASA competition to design a spacecraft that can retrieve soil samples from Mars and launch them back to Earth for research.
Fresno Rocketworks is among 20 student teams from across the country – and one of only two that are not four-year college or universities – selected by NASA to participate in the space agency’s 2015-16 Student Launch program. NASA announced the selections last week, and on Wednesday, the Fresno group joined the other teams for a telephone conference to review the basics of the competition and the schedule that will lead to testing their designs and launching their vehicles next April near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
“We do have a design in progress, but it has not leaped off of paper yet,” said Mike Hubble, 28, an engineering student at Fresno City who is the project leader. “We hope to start building and testing equipment as soon as we’re able to.”
Just to get to this point is considered a major success for the team, added Hubble, who is also a rocketry hobbyist who launches high-powered model rockets with the Central California chapter of the national Tripoli Rocketry Association. “We’re the oddballs; our chances seemed so slim,” he said. “We’re not a four-year university and we’re not a private company.”
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We’re the oddballs; our chances seemed so slim. We’re not a four-year university and we’re not a private company.
Mike Hubble, Fresno Rocketworks project leader
Teams submitted proposals to NASA over the summer to be evaluated based on their design, recovery system-payload capability and safety, as well as each team’s plans to engage students in their communities in science and technology education. Among other teams in the Mars Ascent Vehicle challenge are Cornell University in New York, the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Northwestern University in Illinois and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. “With schools like those, I’d like to think the competition was pretty intense,” Hubble said.
Another group of teams from universities such as Auburn, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Penn State and Vanderbilt are competing in a different portion of the Student Launch Challenge to design a reusable vehicle, but without the complication of the autonomous Mars Ascent Vehicle.
Because the Fresno team is not strictly a student group, participation is open to others with an interest in science, rocketry or engineering, whether as participants or mentors. The team already has some key support from Fresno Ideaworks, a nonprofit “maker” workspace on Broadway Street in downtown Fresno. “We’re partnering with them. They’re using some of our members as mentors and using our space to do their build,” said Ideaworks co-founder Scott Kramer.
By registering as a nonacademic team, “we’re not eligible for as much prize money, but we have this wonderful space in Fresno Ideaworks and all these creative people coming through every day,” Hubble said. “It’s a great way to bring the entire community in on this.”
The rocket project is not just a guy thing. Several women are on the nine-member team, including Jessica Lopez, a 22-year-old civil engineering student, and environmental engineering student Briseyda Zepeda, 25, who were classmates of Hubble’s during an engineering class over the summer. “We both took an engineering course … and we got hands-on experience on how to build things,” Lopez said. “A rocket is something where you can get hands on, and you want to understand how it works and what makes it work.”
Zepeda said she and others were infected by Hubble’s enthusiasm. “At first I was really intimidated because I don’t know anything about aerodynamics,” she said. “But we decided to join and see what happens.”
The Mars Ascent Vehicle challenge requires teams to develop a spacecraft that can autonomously retrieve a sample container, insert it into a payload compartment of their rocket, and then launch itself from the surface. To be successful, the team must also safely recover both the sample and the rocket.
NASA sponsors the Student Launch Challenge as part of its efforts to promote education in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM fields. “Student Launch provides a real-world opportunity for our next generation of engineers and scientists to succeed in aeronautics and aerospace,” said Tammy Rowan, manager of academic affairs at NASA’s Marshall center in Huntsville, Ala. “Student Launch pushes their limits in critical thinking, improves their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skill sets and better prepares them for success in tomorrow’s workplace.”
The prospect of up to $50,000 in prizes from NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate for the top three teams that successfully complete the challenge isn’t bad, either.
No simple task
According to information from NASA, the Mars Ascent Vehicle challenge requires teams to develop a spacecraft that can autonomously retrieve a sample container, insert it into a payload compartment of their rocket, and then launch itself from the surface. To be successful, the team must also safely recover both the sample and the rocket. NASA could consider such technology for future Mars exploration missions.
In addition to designing and testing their spacecraft and launch system, teams must also demonstrate a commitment to advancing STEM education in schools in their communities. “We have to reach at least 200 local students,” Hubble said. In addition to raising the money needed to build and test their system and get the team to Alabama for the launch competition in April, Fresno Rocketworks is trying to gather enough funds to provide small model rockets to middle school students in the Fresno area.
“What’s important about that is it engages other kids, especially here in the Valley where you don’t hear much about aerospace and space technology,” Hubble said. “We want to show kids, ‘This is what we’re working on,’ and to show them that they can do this, too. For them to actually fly a rocket at their school, it’ll be a new experience for them.”
Fresno Rocketworks has launched a GoFundMe.com page to accept donations for the effort with a goal of raising about $8,000. “The early estimate is that we’ll need about $6,500, but we really don’t know what it’s actually going to cost,” Hubble said. “The more we have left over, the more we have to donate to the schools that work with us.”