RCS Engineering works toward TARC, NASA Student Launch

RCS Engineering students have a lot on their plates.

Simultaneously, two RCS Engineering groups – an A-team and a B-team – are preparing for the Team America Rocketry Challenge at the University of North Alabama, set for March 19. With the team’s 2015 success, RCS Engineering has structured to allow an A-team of experienced team members to mentor and aide a B-team of beginners.

“It helps lower the stress because we have so many knowledgeable people on the A-team and so many hard workers on the B-team,” explained RCS Engineering sponsor Mark Keeton.

The teams have both been involved in the design and data collection phase of building their TARC rockets until last week, when actual fabrication began for the B-team. The A-team, comprising last year’s world champion students, is already into the testing of its second rocket, having found flaws with their first design.

“We’re really excited to get out in the field and start testing,” said A-team captain Andrew Heath, who is a senior this year. He said the balance between working together as the A-team, while helping the B-team get started, has been a challenge. “It’s been difficult to work on our own projects while helping them. But they’re putting in a lot of work, and you can see the progress they’re making.”

McKinley Copeland is one of those B-team students. He transitioned into the rocketry program after working with the robotics team in middle school.

“All the B-team members are pretty much rookies, and it’s really scary – especially since we’re going up against world champs,” Copeland said. “But I’m really glad they’re helping us.”

The two RCS will ultimately end up in competition against each other at UNA, although Keeton said only the A-team will be participating as a qualifier to return to the national competition.

Copeland said he has enjoyed the design phase of the rocket-building, in which the team has researched designs and then used simulation software to test the design as to whether the rocket would perform within the TARC guidelines.

“I like studying how your tip point and sleeve line affects your drag, and how big your fins are will change the force and how high it goes,” said Copeland. He said he has enjoyed “being able to learn about rockets, design them and learn what all I have to do to become a rocket engineer.”

Of course, while the A-team is also enjoying TARC prep and the challenges it presents – because even though they were world champions last year, this year’s competition presents new requirements and challenges – its team members have divided focus. The team is also currently in the middle of the NASA Student Launch initiative.

The student launch initiative is a new effort for the Russellville team. Similar to the TARC competition, it requires the team to build a rocket to meet specs – detailed in a 92-page student handbook. Unlike TARC, the NASA project requires much more extensive documentation.

“It’s a lot more in depth and detailed and hard work,” said Niles Butts, who is also a graduating senior this year.

The A-team must complete “40-50 pages of design and safety details,” Butts said, as a critical design review to prevent to NASA, which will review and provide feedback on the documentation. The team recently launched a subscale rocket matching its specs – ¾ scale to its eventual 74-inch rocket. “We’re pretty excited to build that,” Butts said.

“We all knew it was going to be a lot more in-depth and was going to take a lot more work,” Heath said. “The particular challenges that we have faced have been a lot different than what we expected.” Challenges, for instance, like belatedly realizing they didn’t have the documentation to launch on time, which pushed back their subscale launch.

The team has several deadlines and requirements in the coming moments, including participating in a Flight Readiness Review Q&A, handing in their Flight Readiness Review reports and presentation slides and completing their Launch Readiness Review.

It all culminates in Launch Day in mid-April, after which the winning team will be announced in May.

Keeton said this NASA launch has been just what RCS Engineering needed.

“It’s the only logical step with this team – continue with TARC and take on new challenges,” Keeton said.

RCS Engineering will soon be conducting interviews to select new students to invite to join the team, taking on new generations of talent each year as the team’s most seasoned members graduates and move on.

Heath said he hopes to see the B-team, and future generations of rocketry students, develop and hone a problem-solving mindset.

“I see a lot of people – a lot of other teams – and the younger students aren’t attempting to solve the problem themselves but want someone else to show them how to solve it,” Heath said. “The ability to discover that yourself is really what sets you apart.”

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