Critics say the United States is losing its competitive edge in the aerospace industry to rising stars like China, India, and Russia. The first National University Rocket Launch Competition is part of an effort to stay ahead of the game in the space race, by encouraging talented students to go into the engineering field to replace the aging work force.
On a barren swath of Utah desert with the snow-covered La Salle Mountains visible in the distance, two rockets are prepared for blast off into the atmosphere. The rival rockets were designed and built by college students from Utah State University and the University of Alabama.
Out at the launch site, the sky is bright blue and the wind is subtle, perfect weather for the occasion. Engineering graduate student David Omer leads the Utah State team, which calls its rocket the 'Chimera.' He explains, "Chimera is a mythical Greek beast who I believe is a hybrid of different things and breathes fire."
And that pretty much sums up the USU rocket. It's blue and silver, about the height of a house and the width of a basketball. Ten students are busily stitching it together with screws and aluminum tape. It took dozens of students a decade to design and build this basic prototype from scratch at a cost of about $2,000.
That's the sort of energy and innovation the U.S. aerospace industry needs, according to event director Paul Mueller. He's co-founder of the contest sponsor, ESRA, an experimental rocket association. "The sky is the limit depending on the different things we can do. The opportunity is students get to design, build, and fly something and really see how it works."
It's a success already, according to David Omer, who says the competition is "the most valuable educational experience I have got in my college career, and it's trained me in ways I could not have been trained in a classroom, and it's made me think in ways that I wouldn't have, and it's something that I wouldn't give up."
A few meters away from where Omer's team is putting the finishing touches on the Chimera, the Alabama rocket is already in place. Team members say they love what they do so much they drove 27 hours straight to get here. Their rocket is much smaller and sleeker than USU's. It cost more than twice as much - about $5,000. They bought their engine but built everything else themselves.
Several scientists are milling around the rockets, enthusiastically showing support for the project. They include representatives from the Army, NASA, and several private aerospace companies. Matthew Dushku works for Boeing's nuclear missile program. "These guys that you see out here building and putting together this rocket are gonna be the guys in the future that send people to Mars, and this is the beginning of their training and that helps keep us on top as a nation."
Contest judge Gil Moore agrees. "This is exactly what we need in order to ensure a continuation of the leading position that the U.S. has in the space field and thus the engineering world and thus the economic world. You have to go out there and do something that is fun and exciting and valuable, and some of these guys are going to go off and make their own rocket company."
The retired physicist now serves as director of Project Starshine, a student-built global satellite program. He sees immediate and practical applications for the work these students are doing. "It's the silent part of our military capability that keeps us safe and allows to wage, quick, decisive minimum collateral damage war that sets us apart from all other nations. The weather imagery or knowing about meteors that are coming in or asteroid impacts and so on, all of that information is why it's important to go into space."
Once the USU team erected the launch rail for take-off, they retreated to a shed-sized bunker about 90 meters from the rocket. From there, David Omer and his team used a computer to count down the launch. "It's butterfly time," Omer admitted with a laugh. Another student counted down, "… 3 seconds, ignite... launch!"
The rocket took off and corkscrewed up to its maximum altitude, drawing exclamations of excitement and relief from the team. But halfway down, the parachutes that were to give it a soft landing failed, the Chimera fell apart and slammed into the ground… starting a small fire that quickly burned out. The Alabama team's rocket went up next, but its parachutes also failed and it crashed. The students learned they have to put just as much work into the recovery system as they do the engine.
With similar performance and outcome, the judges decided Utah State was the winner because the USU team built their rocket from scratch and it could carry twice as much weight as Alabama's. Judge Walter Holemans, president of a private aerospace company, says he's looking forward to next year's competition. "Next year, I hope there will be bigger rockets, rocket engines with more 'whiz bang,' and," he adds with a smile, "I'm definitely coming."