May 30, 2006 —
On the pad: Del Carbon readied for take-off David Reese (in red) and Ian Whittinghill get ready for the countdown.
It came down to this: "Two semesters, two all-nighters, and a ten-second countdown."
It came down to success. On May 20, at the Koehn Dry Lake launch site in the Mojave desert, a 12-foot rocket named Del Carbon built from scratch by a passionate group of USC Viterbi School undergraduates rose steadily despite severe wind, reaching its planned altitude of 7,000 feet before deploying its parachute and returning gently to earth.
The wind blew it a mile and a half from the launch site, making a long desert hike for Ian Whittinghill, the founder of the team and his colleagues. But Del Carbon (the name is a play on the rocket's carbon-fiber construction and a Del Taco location that was the team's late-night sustenance stop) is now being readied for another launch, before the end of July.
Whittinghill is a junior, majoring in aerospace engineering at the Viterbi School, planning to do a year of graduate work after graduation. His goal before he leaves two years hence is a USC student rocket that will make it into space internationally defined as an altitude of 100 km, (62 miles = 328,000 feet) within the next two years.
Creating Del Carbon was a long and winding labor of love for Whittinghill, a second-generation rocketeer. His father George is the founder of an engineering firm, Whittinghill Aerospace. in Camarillo. "My dad and I would take lots of trips out to the desert," testing rockets.
His interest led him to USC, where in his sophomore year he began a persistent effort to form a club to launch a rocket. He found an ally in Associate Professor Daniel A. Erwin of the astronautics division. " I said I'm interested in starting a group to look at experimental propulsion technology," Whittinghill recalls, "A group that will get its hands dirty."
"Ian was not the first person to want to put together a student space group," said Erwin. "But he was the first who really had the background to do it. We'd fired little rockets before, but nothing like what this group has done."
Erwin was able to, with the help of the Viterbi School external relations department, to find some funding for the project, in the form of a two-year grant from the Lord Foundation. He was also able to find a place to put the rocket together. "Rockets are long, so the space had to be a little unusual. Fortunately, we were able to locate something.
Finally, Erwin was able, under a system that has precedents elsewhere in the school to be able to give one unit of class credit for participation in the project -- "analogous to the AME racing team," said Erwin, who was able in July 2005 to give Whittinghill the high sign.
"So in the fall of the school year, I started spreading the word," said Whittinghill, helped by Erwin's announcement in his astronautics class.
About two dozen people signed up — and, remarkably, more than a dozen hung persistently around through two years of work.
First challenge: the space in the Rapp Building - a generous space, said Whittinghill, but a filthy one. All hands got very dirty cleaning it out.
"We realized we didn't have the time to tackle a giant project, so we started with something smaller." The rocket was "totally scratch-built" by hand, piece by pieces from carbon fiber. Whittinghill's father pitched in with access to computer based analysis tools.
For the engine, another second-generation rocketeer club member, freshman David Reese was able to supply a small solid fuel engine. Lab manager Paul Giuliano, a sophomore, worked with industry to order supplies and get them in on time. "His organization made the project possible." Freshman Chris McNutt tackled the incredibly arduous task of polishing the nose.
Endless hours of work later led up to the May 20 launch. "I am so grateful to the Viterbi School and our funders for all their trust and faith. We owe them a debt."
The next step, says Whittinghill, will be developing a new, full-size engine, a "hybrid" combination liquid-solid fuel variety that's much safer than liquid, and much more powerful than solid fuel. According to Erwin, such engines are still new in the field, and much remains to be learned. Some students from the project may find their way into peer-reviewed engineering publications, Erwin believes.
And in general about the project, "undergrads like to get involved with challenging problems," says Erwin."And this is something where the glory of the university is at stake. A lot of very practical stuff that goes into this that they don't get in classes."
In coming months, a non-engineer, old high-school friend of Whittinghill's, business major pre-law Lou Myers, will be trying to raise more funds.
And then -- 100 kilometers, here they come.
Team Del Carbon: (from left) Lane Dalan, Dan Frolich, Miriam Mollerus, Eddie Smetak, Ross Franken, Ian Whittinghill, Paul Giuliano, David Reese, Ryan Downey, Matt Miller, and Lou Myer,
In addition to those already mentioned, Whittinghill and the Del Carbon group asked that this story acknowledge help from others, including:
- USC Aero Design Team Another one of USC's student project groups. In addition to sharing many members with the rocket lab, the AeroDesign team has allowed us the use of many of their tools and supplies. Since the rocket lab is so new, we're still gathering all the resources we need. The AeroDesign team was always generous in sharing the tools we needed.
- USC Microsatellite Team A project group who has been designing and building a small electronics payload intended to fly in this rocket. The microsatellite payload helped give our team a goal to work towards and offered us co-group cooperation experiance that was similar to a customer-client relationship. We looking forward to flying the next payloads from the microsatellite team.
- Martinez & Turek, Inc. Extremely generous machining servies for nose cone tooling. They were extremely kind and took a great interest in the project. Also gave walkthrough tours to several lab members.
- Reaction Research Society (RRS) The oldest continuously operating amateur experimental rocketry group in the US. Running since 1943. Allowed USC the use of their launch site and took care of federal launch clearance with the FAA.
- Automated Controlled Environments, Inc. Are currently collaborating with us to develop a custom flight control and avionics computer. Are also very generous with their time and resources.
- PTM&W Industries This company sold us all of the epoxies used in making our composite molds. They also offered a wealth of knowledge and experiance-based advice at no charge.
- Industrial Metals Supplies Discounted all the metal supplies used on this rocket. Delivered supplies directly to the lab at no charge.