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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Childhood Model Rockets Lead to Inroads with NASA

Schurr loading the parachute into the River City Rocketry team's rocket prior to competition.

By Jennifer Heindl 

2011 Highland High School graduate, Evan Schurr, has had his eye on the sky since he was a young boy. In April, he took his childhood interest in building rockets to a whole new level when a rocket he helped design and build as a team member with the University of Louisville's River City Rocketry team won 2nd place in the nationwide NASA Student Launch competition.

Schurr has been interested in rockets for as long as he can remember but it didn't develop into a serious passion until late in high school. His father, George, is an electrical engineer and when Schurr was in elementary school his father gave him and his brothers an Estes model rocket building kit.

"He drove us down to Pendery Park to launch it," said Schurr. "Watching that first model rocket launch really blew me away as a young child and I think that's really what primed me for an interest in aerospace. That became our summer activity for many years while we were young - we still have tons of old rockets sitting in our basement."

While a student at Highlands High School, Schurr watched the movie October Sky in Kym Grillot's History class which tells the true story of a high school student named Homer Hickam. Hickam was a self-taught rocket builder that ends up going on to work at NASA. The story resonated with Schurr and helped him connect the dots from a personal rocket building hobby to what he hopes will someday become a career in aerospace engineering.

"I remember sitting in Kym's class watching the final scene where the whole town gathers to watch them launch their final huge rocket. It reminded me of the rockets I used to build as a kid and I thought 'That’s what I want to do,'" said Schurr.

"At the end there’s a montage showing the actual photos of the 'rocket boys' and the outcomes of their lives - lo and behold Homer Hickam became a NASA engineer, making him one of the first people in years to leave his hometown and have a future outside of coal mining. That story resonated with me in a significant way and I think really started my interest in aerospace." 

Schurr chose physics as his major at UL and after considering the RCR team for a couple of years, he decided to give it a try for the 2015-16 school year.

"I had wanted to try the team out for some time but I kinda thought 'Well, I’m technically a physics major so I’m not really an engineer.' I wasn’t really sure if I’d be useful, but physics and engineering are very closely related cousins," said Schurr. "It’s all math at the root of it, so it’s all the same language and it really turned out to totally be my thing."

"The team is essentially open to whoever wants to join. It’s kind of a self selecting factor - the first meeting of every semester is always full of fresh faces, but many of these kids quickly figure out that it’s a ton of work and that it’s almost like having a full time job. 

We had many many 4am Friday nights at our engineering garage, and a few all-nighters. The ones who do find a niche stick around and you’re left with 15 or so kids that are just total rocket dorks." 

2015-16 University of Louisville River City Rocketry team. 
RCR has placed in the top five all five years that they have competed in the NASA Student Launch competition. In April they faced a field of more than 50 student teams from across the nation.

Every year NASA puts out a challenge for the competition. The challenge changes every year, and universities nation wide submit an initial proposal with a basic design outline of everything that they intend to build to complete their challenge. NASA then selects the schools with the best designs out of all the submitted proposals to compete. Once selected, the teams go through a series of design reviews that are all a couple of months apart. Design reviews are done to the same exacting standards  that actual engineers at NASA go through for their rockets.

First, is the Preliminary Design Review where initial in-depth designs are presented to NASA and the design review committee goes through everything that they think may not work or warrants concern. Redesigns are presented during the Critical Design Review. After clearing that hurdle, building begins.

"You build, test all the equipment, and then after a couple months of slaving away, you have your test flights where you finally let ‘er rip," said Schurr. "Those were definitely some of my favorite moments of the season. You know what to expect but it always blows you away to watch a 9 foot tall rocket go from 0 to 400mph in 2 seconds. There’s the countdown and then this deafening roar as the motor comes alive and the rocket tears off into the sky. There’s always this sense of 'Did you see that?! We built that!', which is an incredible feeling."

First test launch. FTM file. 

After all the test flights are completed, comes the Flight Readiness Review where all test flight results are reviewed to show the rocket is ready to fly at competition. Once reviewed, NASA says “Congratulations, see you at Marshall Spaceflight Center for competition in two weeks”, and it’s game time.

RELATED: RCR Project Design

During an 8-month design and build process, there were bound to be funny and frustrating moments along the way. One such moment came the night before the rocket's first test flight.

"I was on the recovery subteam this season which deals with designing and making all the stuff that handles the deployment of the parachute and recovery of the rocket," said Schurr. "The night before our test launch everyone is in the warehouse doing their last in-house tests for all their systems and prepping the rocket. It feels like Christmas eve - the rocket finally looks like a rocket and it’s all assembled and sitting on a stand, electronics are beeping as tests are being run, the parachute is all splayed out on the floor and ready to be packed into the rocket, and everyone is a bit giddy with excitement. The rocket is finally going to fly the next day, and the buzz of excitement in the air is palpable. 

So the other two guys on the recovery team and I start getting to work rigging the parachute up and packing it into the rocket. It quickly becomes apparent that we built a parachute that was too big to fit inside the rocket. After all the math, design work, and manufacturing, no one even stopped to wonder if it would fit. Obviously, without a parachute our rocket was a little less like a rocket and a lot more like a ballistic missile, so that was a really bad mistake, and really difficult to have to tell the whole team that Santa wasn’t coming tomorrow because of us. 

We ended up revisiting the math and discovering that we had done the math incorrectly and we could get away with a smaller parachute, so we pulled a bunch of late nighters to make a whole new parachute to be ready to launch for the next weekend. That sucked, but we made it happen."

Schurr plans to continue as a member of RCR next year in his final year at UL.

"I’m hoping to be on the launch vehicle sub team," said Schurr. "There are several subteams (recovery, electronics, ground station, payload) but launch vehicle builds the actual rocket, which is a really exciting team to be on. We’re already doing a lot of work on an airbraking system for next year. This year we used a system that had removable steel plates to adjust the mass of the rocket to compensate for weather factors that affect the max altitude, but it had some shortcomings. So what we’re working on is a system where you basically build a rocket that is designed to go too high. 

The secret weapon is a small computer on board that analyzes the flight data on the way up (velocity, altitude, etc) and deploys and retracts flaps on the side of the rocket to create drag and slow it down so that it hits the altitude we want right on the button. At first it sounded like an impossible Tony Stark type thing to try but it seems like it’s going to work pretty well so far, so I’m looking forward to working a lot more on it."

After having such important experiences as a child that helped shape his future path, Schurr suggested giving younger kids the access to hands on experiences like his is huge.

"I think the key is to really expose them to things they can do," said Schurr. "One of the big things our team does is educational outreach, which I think is arguably just as important as anything else we do. Every year, the (RCR) team participates in the school’s Engineering Expo and we have a classroom where the kids can come build and decorate their own little paper rockets, which we launch with compressed air outside. We have our rocket on display with videos of our launches playing and the kids always have loads of questions, and they get a huge kick out of the whole thing. 

You can try to teach kids all you want, but actually allowing them to build and do things is so much more valuable." 

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