A combined team of students from Cabrillo High School and the California Academy of Mathematics and Science recently headed to the Mojave Desert to get first-hand experience in advanced rocket engineering and flight testing.
After a long day that started at 4 a.m., the payoff came when the Prospector rocket that they helped build lifted off on a brilliant plume of fire and then, after a successful parachute deployment, slowly drifted about 1,800 feet back to earth, landing intact and ready for more testing.
The program is part of the school district’s Linked Learning approach that involves business partners in creating real-world, hands-on experiences for students.
The 20 dedicated students and their instructors who made the Mojave hike are participants in a rocket technology research and development initiative that local aerospace company Garvey Spacecraft Corporation (GSC) is undertaking with the support of NASA’s Launch Services Program. GSC is pursuing the development of an operational “nanosat launch vehicle” that could directly deliver a very small spacecraft to orbit. Stanford University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are among the academic leaders in this arena, and having a dedicated launch option would enhance their ability to conduct research in space.
Late last year, a project arose with NASA that enabled GSC to expand its interaction with LBUSD, said GSC founder John Garvey.
“After a few phone calls, I reached John Jacobson at district headquarters, and he in turn put us in contact with instructors like Steve Marsh at Cabrillo and Ted Harder at CAMS, who are already doing real hands-on hardware projects with activities like FIRST Robotics,” Garvey said. “Steve and Ted were key in figuring out the best tasks to give to the students and lining up candidates with the right skill sets and attitudes.”
With additional mentoring provided by recent Cal State Long Beach graduates and college interns who are now employed by GSC, the LBUSD students spent part of the spring semester refurbishing a Prospector 3 rocket that last flew in September. Students helped convert the propulsion system to run on liquid oxygen with propylene as the fuel instead of ethanol, while also making repairs and installing wire harnesses.
Several CAMS students machined components that were ultimately integrated into the new rocket engine, which itself represents a notable technology advancement, Garvey said. In technology-speak, this engine features a ceramic matrix composite (CMC)-lined ablative engine chamber originally developed under another NASA program by HyperTherm from Huntington Beach along with CSULB. GSC and CSULB had demonstrated the viability of this technology in ground testing for HyperTherm that wrapped up in 2012. Actually putting such a chamber into flight represented the next big step in demonstrating that this hardware, which is lighter and potentially less expensive than standard engine chambers made from ablative materials (materials that erode or decompose as part of the rocket’s operation), is getting closer to being ready for real mission applications. The goal was to demonstrate a high degree of technology readiness.
GSC and HyperTherm worked with their respective NASA managers to get the approval to put one such chamber on the P-3. So the LBUSD students got some real-world engineering lessons and participated in a successful technology flight that has the potential to improve future NASA missions.
With the P-3 safely back in the shop, GSC and the students are now refining the next phase of development. They plan to head back out to the Mojave Desert site owned by the Long Beach-based non-profit Friends of Amateur Rocketry to conduct a round of tests that will gather more technical data.
“LBUSD recognizes the unique value of being able to work on this kind of project with GSC and NASA, particularly in today’s tight budget environment. The project draws on the strengths of the aerospace heritage here in Southern California, and motivating the students is easy,” said John Jacobson, the school district’s Small Learning Communities program facilitator.
Marsh, the Cabrillo instructor, said one student called the Mohave Desert launch his greatest accomplishment in life.
“That young man has vastly improved his attitude about his own future as a result of the experience,” Marsh said. “The change in him has been noticed by his instructors. The Cabrillo students gave up their spring break to assist in this project. The work ethic that these students demonstrated serves as an example for all the students at this inner city high school. The partnership with GSC has changed the school climate for the better.”