The endless void of space may be humankind’s final frontier, but here on Earth, there is another kind of frontier, one that sees younger and younger scientists-in-training building larger and more ambitious rockets.
A group of seven current and former University of Maine students from all around the state, including one from Winslow, will make history next week when, if all goes well, they will launch an 18-foot-tall, 500-pound rocket they designed and built themselves nearly 35 miles into the atmosphere.
The launch, funded in part by an Augusta-based organization, is an example of young amateur engineers taking it upon themselves to fill two vacuums — the first, an economic void created when the U.S. government began pulling back resources from its space program, and the second the deep, endless void of space.
Amateur-initiated space programs are becoming more common, and more desperately needed, according to Tom Atchison, founder of the Mavericks Civilian Space Foundation, located in a NASA research park in California.
The purpose of the Mavericks, which is also supporting the project, is to instill passion for space exploration among young people by helping them to build their own spacecrafts, he said.
This particular rocket launch is special, Atchison said.
“It’s one of the first ones I’ve seen that’s actually been built and designed by undergraduate engineering students,” he said.
Much is riding on the success of the rocket’s test flight, which will take place next week, when the weather is optimal, from a site in Black Rock, Nev., a remote section of the desert where a launching pad is used to send up rockets on a regular basis.
If the student design proves successful, it will make a small but meaningful contribution to the future of life on Earth — as well as answer questions about its deep past.
The students’ design will also serve as a model for hundreds of smaller rockets, built in classrooms around the country, said Atchison, who founded the Mavericks in 2002.
Student science taking off
Michael Ostromecky, 22, of Winslow, joined the rocket team in 2012, as its only junior member two years ago. The team’s other members were working on the rocket design as a senior project in the university’s mechanical engineering department, and Ostromecky began hanging around, hoping to find a way he could contribute.
Ostromecky was already a confirmed rocket enthusiast, a personal passion that dated back to when he was 7 and flew his first model rocket.
“When I saw it go off, I wanted to do it again,” he said. “I wanted to do it bigger. I wanted to make it better.”
Now, Ostromecky is the only team member who is still a student. The others, Luke Saindon, of Deer Isle; Ryan Means, of York; Gerard Desjardins, of Mapleton; Alex Morrow, of Washburn; Josh Mueller, of Cannon Falls; and Robert Miller, of Portland, have all graduated.
They call themselves Team Ursa, a reference both to the constellation Ursa Major and, Latin for bear, also a reference to the University of Maine mascot, a black bear.
The senior project was initially just theory — the students set out to create their own more efficient rocket design, and spent hours calculating airflow and rates of atmospheric pressure, using computer designs as models.
Over time, though, the project evolved. The students began building pieces of the rocket, milling sheets of aluminum and welding pieces together in the campus’ Crosby Laboratory. They began receiving funding and active support from the Mavericks and other groups, who helped them to equip their design with the electronics needed to bring it to life. The rocket’s larger pieces, which couldn’t be finished with the equipment at hand, were sent to other companies for completion.
Today, they have raised $25,000 toward the project. Paperwork has been filed with the Federal Aviation Administration, which will redirect other flights during the launch to avoid a mid-air collision. All the pieces are in place for a launch that will tell them whether they have really designed a better rocket, or whether they need to go back to the design phase.
Into the void
That a group of students has managed to put together a working rocket ship is a sign of how the world of aeronautics has changed.
During the space race of the 1960s, all of America’s space ambitions were channeled through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which spent billions of dollars to send Americans to the dusty lunar landscape of the moon.
But in recent years, NASA has stepped back from big, manned flights into space, in part because of reduced funding.
This year, federal officials announced a projected 2014 budget of $17.7 billion, a decrease of $50 million below 2012 funding levels, and there are also threats of further sequestration cuts.
Against this backdrop, private companies have begun to emerge. Two in particular, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, have dominated the commercial space flight landscape. Virgin reports that, since 2005, it has collected $70 million in deposits from about 580 would-be space tourists, including celebrities such as actor Ashton Kutcher and pop singer Justin Bieber, according to a NBC news report in June.
The companies have made significant strides in achieving privately-funded space missions, while helping to bring the cost of space exploration down.
In April, Virgin’s rocket became the first commercial spacecraft to break the speed of sound, while in Dec. 2010, SpaceX’s “Dragon” became the first privately-funded spacecraft to berth at the International Space Station.
Atchison said the privatizing of space flight is creating massive cost savings by driving cost-effective solutions to aeronautical problems.
However, he said space tourism, designed to send people into sub-orbital regions for very short periods of time, isn’t going to help advance the science for long-term space travel.
While the government spends millions per mission, and private companies spend hundred of thousands, the students, operating by necessity on a shoestring budget, have spent only $25,000.
Ostromecky said the project is still seeking funding support, and asked that those who are interested visit the Rocket Mavericks website at www.rocketmavericks.com.
Much of the funding for the project came from the Maine Space Grants Consortium, an Augusta-based organization that draws its funding from NASA. The space consortium seeks to encourage students entering STEM fields and stimulate research in the area.
Other support came from the Mavericks, and from another foundation.
“We’re an order of magnitude cheaper and there’s huge educational value because they’re actually learning to do the engineering,” Atchison said. “There’s nothing wrong with the consumer approach but I’m not sure you get the same educational bang for the buck.”
Leaving Earth behind
The real value of Team Ursa’s project may be in the support and inspiration it provides to other student projects.
The rocket is equipped with sensors, called pressure transducers, that will measure the airflow and pressure of the new design, a critical set of data that will demonstrate that the student design is hardy enough to stand up to the intense pressures of launch, re-entry, and outer space.
If the data proves Ostromecky and his teammates right, the design will be duplicated over and over, as the Mavericks begin guiding high school students around the country in building their own, smaller versions.
Atchison said the future of space exploration depends on a new generation of young people being inspired to take up rocketry and other forms of engineering.
Atchison said students like Ostromecky, who grew up reading about rocketry and space exploration in magazines and online articles, are becoming more rare.
Ostromecky said it wasn’t until he became a university student that he began to appreciate the importance of the underlying scientific principles of solid mechanics and fluid mechanics in space exploration.
“It kind of hit me, this is pretty much rocket science when you put it all together.”
The Mavericks are trying to encourage more engineering-minded students, and have a stated goal of helping 6,000 student do 300 sub-orbital flights over the next five years.
For Ostromecky and Atchison, the work they do is deadly serious, and performed with a sense of urgency because life on Earth, they say, is not sustainable.
“The hard realities for humans on the planet is that we’ve got to get off of it if were going to survive as a species,” Atchison said. He said that, if people haven’t established an off-Earth presence 100 years by now, “we’ll be extinct.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287