Driving 22 miles across a roadless desert in Nevada. A call to the federal government to clear the sky of aircraft. A critical misfire 52,000 feet above the Earth. Soaking after midnight in a hot spring in the wilderness.
Just a day in life of an amateur rocket scientist.
Earlier this month, Team Ursa, a group of current and former University of Maine students, went to Nevada to launch their 18-foot rocket, one of the most ambitious student-designed rockets ever sent skyward.
The mission got off to a good start, but the ending was explosive, according to Tom Atchison, founder of the Mavericks Civilian Space Foundation, located in a NASA research park in California.
On Sept. 15, Michael Ostromecky, 22, of Winslow, 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, headed into the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
With seemingly endless space, the remote arid landscape is a place to test limits. Limits were tested in the 1800s, when hopeful miners came seeking gold and left behind ghost towns, some of which are still standing, ancient cans of tuna on the shelf, Atchison said.
Limits are still being tested today. Not far away, in 1997, a land speed record of more than 750 miles per hour was set. Every year, just 20 miles from the launch site, thousands push the limits of creativity in a free-spirited Burning Man festival, building massive sculptures and setting them alight.
This strange land is where the Mavericks help amateurs test their own limits by launching increasingly sophisticated rockets into the atmosphere.
That Sunday, they were there to help Team Ursa.
Once in the desert, they established a tent camp without cellphone service, plumbing or an easy way out.
“You’re living out there. There’s no driving back, man. We set up our own little mini-Cape Canaveral,” Atchison said, referring to the site of well-known NASA launch pads in Florida.
Every time the Mavericks bring a team out, they build the site from scratch. When they leave, everything is dismantled and carted away in accordance with the Bureau of Land Management’s directive to leave no trace.
The team set up a launch tower, satellite uplinks, GPS tracking units, telemetry systems and radio links between the rocket and the ground.
They were prepared to wait days for optimal launching weather, but it came earlier than expected. Monday morning, the temperature was 81 degrees, the skies were clear, and the winds were mild — just 43 knots, or 49 miles per hour, at 63,000 feet.
The team scrambled to get ready, filling the rocket, as tall and thin as a petrified python, with fuel and testing its communication systems.
Fully prepared, they contacted the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to, as Atchison put it, open up a hole in the sky. Air traffic in the area was directed to avoid a 60-mile-diameter circle extending from the dry desert up to the reaches of outer space.
Shortly after 3 p.m., clearance granted, most of the team retreated a half-mile away, while Atchison put initiators in, the equivalent of equipping a loaded gun with a trigger.
“That’s a one-man job,” he said. “It’s a little dangerous, because there’s the potential for something to go wrong.”
Team Ursa and the Mavericks weren’t the only ones with an investment in the rocket’s success.
It carried research payloads for corporate sponsors, including Boston-based technology company Mide. Atchison said he couldn’t reveal all of the experiments on board, as they play a role in contracts between the sponsors and the U.S. Department of Defense.
At the end of the countdown, the moment came.
At the push of a button, the rocket shot up, rising above a cloud of exhaust and dust.
The rocket’s bottom section, carrying mostly fuel, performed flawlessly.
“That thing was straight as an arrow,” Atchison said. “It flew beautifully.”
Atchison said this was the most ambitious student project he’d seen, with the members hoping it might go as high as 120,000 feet, about a third of the way to outer space, which begins, arguably, at about 350,000 feet.
But at about 52,000 feet into the air, things went wrong.
A computer chip malfunctioned, causing the propellant in the top section of the rocket to ignite five seconds early, before the lower section broke away.
It was like setting off a firecracker in a sealed tin can, creating an intense spike in pressure and heat inside the rocket.
“The exit portion of the nozzle was contained,” Atchison said. “It blew the bottom part of the rocket off.”
The explosion burned a hole in a motor casing “like butter,” he said, destroying part of the motor and frying the avionics system.
The rocket came down, not nose-first, as some do, but in a flat spin, horizontal, twisting in the air.
Atchison said the malfunction and method of descent was a boon for Mide, which was testing how well its new sensor systems could withstand pressure and vibration. They got more of each than they had bargained for.
“The sensor data is incredible,” he said. “The company is beside themselves.”
Team Ursa members directed questions to Atchison, who said they were disappointed in the outcome. They got almost all of the data they wanted, both for themselves and for their sponsors, but the rocket hadn’t gone as high as it might have. To them, it seemed like a failure.
“There were some bruised feelings,” he said. “They wanted it to be a flawless flight.”
Monday night, as he surveyed a team that was disappointed, dirty and emotionally wrung out, Atchison knew just what to say.
“I asked them if they wanted to go hot tubbing,” he said.
He led them in the darkness to Frog Pond, a nearby spring where the 90-degree mineral water is crystal clear, an oasis amid the dusty surroundings.
Like many springs and geysers, Frog Pond is the result of an interstellar event, one that sent two giant meteors deep into the ground, punched a hole through the Earth’s crust and allowed its molten core to approach the surface, Atchison said.
They used a GPS to locate the precise coordinates of the spring.
Knowing what causes a hot spring, and knowing how to build a tool to find one, is part of being an engineer and part of being human, he said.
“This is what drives mavericks,” Atchison said. “In all humans, there’s a real desire to explore the heavens and get off the planet.”
Success in failure
Seasoned scientists know failure can be as valuable as success.
Atchison shrugged the malfunction off. It may not have gone optimally, he said, but things rarely do.
“I think it was a tremendous success,” he said. “The Department of Defense will fly 20 or 30 of them into the ground before they get them right.”
The project cost about $45,000 — $25,000 to building the rocket and another $20,000 or so to fly it. The group is still about $5,000 short of paying for everything.
Terry Shehata, executive director of the Maine Space Grant Consortium, an Augusta group that contributed about $10,000 to the project, said the launch advanced science.
“You learn from your failure. Failure is something that’s part of the research process,” Shehata said. “They’re going to take all the data and stats from that launch and they’ll succeed next time.”
The day after the launch, Atchison said team members were already talking about returning to test themselves in the desert without limits.
With some tweaks to the motor system, they might attain a height of 200,000 feet.
Or they might go even bigger.
“There’s a lot of discussion,” Atchiison said, “about building a rocket that can actually go into space.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287