Logo: University of Southern California

Fathoming the Unfathomable

USC Rocket Propulsion Lab Shoots for the Stars
By: Nadia M. Whitehead
May 16, 2016 —

Sleepy-eyed undergraduate engineering students surround a crackling fire pit, savoring the heat it emits. It’s 6:46 a.m. on April 30, approximately 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun has just begun to peak over the San Andres Mountains, New Mexico, to the east, and all is calm.

This isn’t what you’d expect from a group of budding rocketeers who are about to attempt to break a world record. Instead of rushing to make last minute adjustments or bursting with excitement, they sip quietly on hot chocolate and munch on poppy seed and blueberry muffins.

“This is probably the most prepared I’ve ever seen them,” said Dan Erwin, professor and chair of USC Viterbi's Department of Astronautical Engineering, who also advises the team. “The morning of a launch is usually pretty hectic.”

But the USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (RPL) has done everything possible to ensure a successful launch. Just two days earlier, the engineers loaded their rocket, Fathom, on a trailer and drove across two states to reach Spaceport America in Sierra County, New Mexico. The spaceport granted the students clearance to fire Fathom from its vertical launch site.

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Spaceport America's street names are appropriately named "Launch Loop,” "Asteroid Beltway" and "Rocket Road." The commercial, 18,000-acre spaceport in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico will be the future launch site of tourists looking to experience space. (Photo by Nadia M. Whitehead)

Fathom is the culmination of 12 years of work. Since the USC RPL was founded in 2004, the lab has launched more than 15 rockets. Each receives its own unique name — Traveler, Tirebiter, Déjà Vu, Déjà Two, and so on — and each builds on the successes and failures of the previous rocket.

If all goes according to plan this morning, Fathom will fly more than a mile per second and reach an altitude of at least 182,700 feet. That’s like climbing a mountain six times the height of Mt. Everest, or stacking 126 Empire State Buildings on top of each other. And if Fathom happens to surpass 199,580 feet — the world record for a student-flown rocket — it will go down in history.

That’s not “the real mission,” though, says USC Viterbi sophomore Haley Karow who’s majoring in astronautical engineering. The lab has actually set its sight on 328,084 feet — the edge of space.

“We want to be the first student-run group to launch a rocket to space; no one’s done that yet,” Karow explains. “That’s the drive, but to do that, we understand that you have to take steps.”

Their strides have been impressive thus far.

USC RPL is the only student lab in the world that has attempted a space shot, a rocket launch intended for space. In fact, the lab has tried three times now, inching closer to its goal each time.

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Skye Mceowen, chief avionics lead, solders avionics components for the rocket Fathom.
(Photo by Nadia M. Whitehead)

Obtaining government approval to shoot a rocket into space was a feat in itself. Prior to RPL’s first space shot in 2013, students had never made such a request to the government.

“There were so many hurdles; it was a lot of bureaucratic tape,” says Allie Gehris, a junior astronautical engineering major. “They needed to be sure that we knew what we were doing; that we weren’t going to cause an accident.”

Two generations of lab students worked tirelessly with dozens of agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration and the Bureau of Land Management, to be granted clearance. Their persistence paved the way for USC, and subsequent universities, to regularly gain flight access since then. 

Fathom is the precursor to the latest space shot. What the students learn here will prepare them for BALLS 25, a premier rocketry event in Black Rock Desert, Nevada where amateur rocketeers from across the U.S. will flaunt their technologies. The gang is hoping to attend to put another launch in the books.

“Alright, I need the launch team ready in five minutes!” one student yells out of nowhere. The students stifle their yawns. It’s go time.

The rocket is loaded gently onto a truck bed and driven down a rugged dirt path to a concrete launch pad. Students, spectating alumni, and even Professor Erwin, cram into another truck bed to follow behind.

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From left to right: Chief Avionics Engineer and Chief Compliance Officer, Carter Allan; Chief Propulsion Engineer, Allie Gehris; and Chief Engineer and Chief Operating Officer, Kristjan Salasoo, pose with Fathom minutes before it's launched into the clear New Mexico sky. (Photo by Nadia M. Whitehead)

At the pad, the rocket is attached to the launch rail and quickly raised into position. Camera shutters snap rapidly as the students pose with their beloved Fathom. In just as soon as they arrive, it’s time to clear the launch site. Everyone scrambles back onto the truck, glancing back longingly as they drive away.

Back at the observation area, a student barks last minute orders through a walkie-talkie and starts the countdown.

“Five, four, three, two, one…” he yells loudly. We hold our breath.

Fathom rumbles in the distance. Smoke spews from its motor right before it soars from the pad. The takeoff is a straight shot; “beautiful,” bystanders described afterward.

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Conor Cimo (in white), rail lead, watches Fathom soar from the launchpad and into the skies.
(Photo by Nadia M. Whitehead)

But a few seconds in, Fathom starts to wobble in the air. Its white, cloud-like smoke trail starts to curve off course. The students gape, speechless. Seconds later Fathom is falling, burning at both ends. “That shouldn’t happen,” someone murmurs.

As the rocket has fallen, the recovery team jumps into a truck and rushes in the direction of the debris. A fire truck follows to put out the flames.

Karow, who helped track down the rocket, was sad to find Fathom wrecked.

“It’s heartbreaking to watch something that you spend so much time and dedication on have an end result like this,” the sophomore explains. “I will say that every failure leads to more knowledge and that’s what really matters: finding a solution to improve our technology.”

This last point, notes Gehris, is one of the things that truly make Rocket Lab unique. Unlike other student design competitions, which are given a problem to solve, USCRPL must first identify the problem before coming up with a solution.

But if the group’s history is any indicator, there’s strong reason for optimism.

In the fall of 2014, for example, after the launch of DCX, USCRPL students found a flaw in the rocket’s thermal protection system – an insulation layer surrounding the rocket’s powerful motor, which burns at thousands of degrees Fahrenheit and whose heat can easily tear the rocket apart.

In a matter of months, students were able to design and test a new thermal protection system. This culminated, in spring 2015, into arguably the largest successful composites static fire for an amateur rocketry group.

Said Gehris, “Given how well our spring 2015 launch went, I have high hopes that we will have a new or better technology by the time BALLS (25) comes around. I have total faith in our group that we’ll fix it pretty quickly.”

Though Fathom may be headed for the rocket graveyard, the students’ dreams have not yet fizzled out. As always, they press onwards, daring to fathom the unfathomable reaches of space.

As the team’s motto goes, “Flight on!”

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