By Livvie Avrick ’19

It was the perfect day for a rocket launch. The mid-November sky was bright blue with not a cloud in sight. From an open field in North Branch, Minnesota, a group of physics majors successfully launched “Quantum Field Theory 1,” their high-power rocket, 2,256 feet into the air. Parachutes lowered it safely back to the ground.

“It was incredible,” says chemistry and physics double major Sary Wyne ’19 (Yangon, Myanmar). “To watch something we had spent so much time and effort building and engineering fly two thousand feet into the sky was surreal. I was overwhelmed and completely at a loss for words.”

Getting to this point was a team effort. Students spent whatever free time they had — lunch breaks, weekends, late nights — working on the rocket and following the weekly webinar lessons taught by Professor James Flaten of the University of Minnesota, who serves as associate director of the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium.

The group deliberated over possible rocket names considering “PBR1” (for President Brian Rosenberg), “Just Fine,” and “Just Hanging in There,” the latter names inspired by their feelings during the process.

“It is very complicated to build a rocket,” says Tonnis ter Veldhuis, professor of physics and department chair, who mentored the group of Macalester students. “It involves project management. There are many aspects to it: staying on schedule, deciding when to build what part and who would do what. It requires machining skills, skills in electronics, learning how a rocket actually flies, and learning a simulation tool.”

Ter Veldhuis provided space in his lab for the students, but points out that it was a student-driven project. They were motivated by the exciting opportunity to gain hands-on experience in aeronautical engineering as undergraduates.  This is what physics and theater double major James Cannon ’20 (Lisbon, Iowa) hopes to do as a career. “I’ve been following Elon Musk and SpaceX closely because what they are doing is really cool, and this is how I hope to get into that,” he says.

For Alyssa Bulatek ’20 (Park Ridge, Ill.), physics and intended applied mathematics and statistics double major, this experience gave her the chance to explore aerospace engineering in a low-stakes way. “I was honestly quite surprised by how well things worked,” she says. “Having no formal engineering experience, I was dubious about the process, but it was amazing to see how far a little epoxy can go in sticking things together and making them structurally stable.”

While it was a lot of fun, Wyne admits that it was also terrifying. “You couldn’t reverse anything you did. If you melted the two metals together, you couldn’t undo that. It was nerve-wracking.”

Precision and accuracy are key to building a rocket, and the students learned a lot from their errors, from sanding the fins incorrectly to drilling holes that were slightly too big. Fortunately, both Bulatek and Cannon had taken the technical theater course at Macalester, where they built sets and did lighting design. “It’s useful in rocket building because it familiarized me with tools and drills,” says Cannon, noting the benefits of a liberal arts education.

Wyne, Bulatek, and Cannon are already looking forward to spring, when the NASA Minnesota Space Grant Consortium is sponsoring a high-power rocketry competition among colleges all over the nation.

“These hands-on activities are great,” says ter Veldhuis. “They are not part of our curriculum, but if students have an interest in them, we can find ways to support that.”

Lilly Bralts-Kelly ’20, Robert Ford ’19, Franklin Marquette ’21, and Maya Wills ’21 were also part of the fall rocketry team.

January 12 2018

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