Shooting off rockets is a regular summer activity, but designing one to go to outer space and receiving news coverage from the Wall Street Journal, NPR and BBC is definitely more uncommon.
The project was started by 19-year-old Duke University student Joshua Farahzad, who emailed rocket clubs at universities and colleges across the United States and Canada asking for help. The goal: to design and launch an unmanned rocket through the Karman line, an imaginary border 62 miles away from Earth.
Students majoring in several different subjects responded, and eventually a 40-person team called Operation Space was created.
One member of Operation Space is Beatrice High School alum Nathan Spilker, who was a sophomore at Princeton University during the project.
Spilker said the project related closely what he wants to do in the future with aerospace engineering, and that he mainly worked on the structures team.
“I was involved in the interstage-adaptor mechanism,” Spilker said. “This rocket is a two-stage rocket, so I was involved in the mechanism that is in between the two stages. I helped design and I helped draw in [computer-aided design], which is a software that allows you to draw parts in 3D. I helped with the interfacing with the machinist that made these parts, as well.”
Operation space is not the first group of students to attempt this project.
The University of Southern California sent their Traveler IV rocket across the Karman line in April, reportedly the first student rocket to successfully accomplish this task.
However, Operation Space has several circumstances that set them apart. The project accomplished by undergraduates without the aid of professors or engineering professionals, and was funded through private donations and appeals.
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“Many of the team members were freshman,” Spilker said. “So this was a very ambitious project spearheaded by underclassmen, which I think is really cool. It gave us a lot of invaluable engineering experience that we could’ve never hoped to get in a classroom setting.”
Operation Space started on their first rocket last August, but it failed due to the equipment – which was shipped from various places – not fitting together.
Members of the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point, helped the group secure materials that would help launch the rocket. After hundreds of hours collaborating through a Slack message channel, video chats and phone calls, and doing their regular school work on top of it all, the group designed a 17-foot rocket.
Operation Space launched two rockets from Spaceport America in New Mexico last weekend.
The first one reportedly made it a third of the way to the Karman line, roughly 100,000 feet, before falling apart. The second rocket went about 52,000 feet.
“[We] unfortunately did not reach space, but the story behind the team is incredible,” Spilker said.
Spilker said Operation Space has not made official plans yet for another project.
“We’ve all been informally talking about what we’re going to do in the future,” Spilker said. “Possibly do another space launch, or do another rocket launch that maybe isn’t a space launch but is a controlled vehicle. Our team is very close-knit, and plans are already being made to do more things together.”