The idiom "Hey, it's not like it's rocket science" implies that whatever you are struggling to learn may be tricky, but at least it isn't as difficult as rocket science, right? But for UMass Amherst's Rocket Team, a group of undergraduates from the College of Engineering competing in the NASA Student Launch Initiative, it is rocket science, and they are all in for the challenge.
The Rocket Team, which began as a senior project in 2014, now boasts over 21 undergraduate members and is run by co-captains and mechanical engineering seniors Liam Coffey and Maxwell Flerra. The team aims to help students gain hands-on, practical experience in spaceflight and rocketry by competing in NASA's annual Student Launch Initiative, an eight-month competition in which teams design, build, and fly data-collecting payloads that support NASA's Space Launch Systems (SLS). The completed rockets even require FAA approval because of their size and the altitudes reached.
After a competitive selection process, teams in the Launch Initiative participate in a series of design reviews that mirror NASA's own engineering design process. It is this collaboration with NASA that Coffey notes as one of the key benefits of the competition. "The interaction with NASA is remarkable because you interface with them throughout the project. They don't just show up at the end but help teams through critique and feedback, supporting ideas as you go. It's pretty special."
Support the team via the UMass Rocket Team MinuteFund. Another special element? The range of engineering majors within the club. While historically, the team consisted mainly of mechanical engineering students, Coffey and Flerra worked hard to expand the team's expertise to include electrical, computer, and biomedical engineering students, as well as students in computer science.
Because the various aspects of rocketry require so many different types of expertise, this cross-major and cross-disciplinary teamwork is essential to staying cutting-edge. "With that breadth of knowledge the different members bring to the team, they add new skills and new ideas that we can harness to come up with a better design for the project," Flerra says.
This year is significant to co-captains Coffey and Flerra because it will be the first time since the disruptions of the pandemic that they will be able to compete in person at the final launch event in Alabama and their last year as members of the team before graduation. Both plan to continue in the field of aerospace and found their time on the team only reinforced their passion for the work.
"This club gives us, in my opinion, an edge over some of the other people trying to apply for the same jobs as us because, sure, everyone could have these ingredients in class," Coffey says. "But have you actually applied that knowledge? Have you launched something or flown something that you've tested in design?"
Coffey and Flerra urge any students interested in rocketry to join the club, even if they are early in their engineering studies or may think they don't have enough experience to contribute. After all, as Coffee and Flerra point out, failure is an essential part of the learning process. "When you fail, it's like, okay, why? Let's break it down. We learned a lot from the times that our rocket didn't recover successfully as to how to make the rocket not have that issue in the future. Every time you fail, your work gets better. It’s part of the process. So people should never be afraid of getting involved."