TOOELE — Rockets of all sizes shot through the sky on May 5, launched from a remote desert field in Tooele County. Some were painted bright colors or had clever names, some rose with a burst of fire or screeching sound, but they nearly all made the crowd crane their necks back.
The BYU Rocketry Club was among those having a blast in more ways than one.
And they’ll continue at this year’s Spaceport America Cup, “the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering conference and competition” that saw 110 teams from colleges and universities in 11 countries last year, according to its website. This year’s competition will be June 19–23 in New Mexico.
Mechanical engineering major Riley Meik, who currently leads the group of club members participating in the upcoming Spaceport America Cup, said this year’s competition will include 130 universities from all over the world.
The BYU Rocketry Club launched several rockets on May 5, but they were particularly testing their Spaceport America Cup competition rocket named Wasatch 1. Meik said their competition category requires rockets get as close to 10,000 feet as possible, with points reduced for every foot off. Meik said Wasatch 1 hit 9,918 feet during the May 5 launch.
Meik explained a rocket contains a motor with a solid propellant in it; burning the propellant creates pressure, which creates thrust inside the rocket’s body. The rocket’s fins stabilize its flight, and when it reaches apogee (the highest point of the flight), a small charge goes off inside the rocket, releasing the parachute.
He added that at last year’s competition, other universities were surprised the BYU Rocketry Club did a test launch before the event. This year, they have now tested twice on the same motor they’ll be competing with, “which is unheard of in this competition. Most people don’t even get one launch out of their competition,” Meik said.
This advantage means they now have two data points from which to make adjustments, such as fixing a parachute that didn’t deploy properly during the first test launch.
“So today, it was everything it needed to be,” Meik said.
This will be BYU Rocketry Club’s second time competing at the Spaceport America Cup. Recent mechanical engineering graduate Ryan Garrison started the club several years ago after touring the NASA space station in Houston, Texas, where he saw Saturn V (the rocket that went to the moon) and “got obsessed” with rockets, to the point where he couldn’t focus on homework because he was watching YouTube videos of rocket launches.
Garrison initially went to BYU’s aerospace club to get involved in rocketry, but found they were largely focused on airplanes. He began the BYU Rocketry Club under the umbrella of the aerospace club, where they operated “until we got so big that I convinced them to let us have our own club,” Garrison said.
Meik said the club has various events and multiple launches throughout the year, which help students gain the certification needed to build increasingly larger rockets, participate in various building projects and get hands-on experience applying what they’re learning in their engineering classes.
However, participation is not limited to mechanical engineering students. Meik said they hold meetings every Wednesday night in the Fletcher Building, and everyone is welcome.
“There is a spot for everyone in BYU Rocketry, whether you’ve been launching rockets since you were 6 or if it (is) your first launch,” he said.
Mechanical engineering major Matthew Fisher got involved with the BYU Rocketry Club during the Fall 2017 semester after hearing about a competition through an engineering class. He joined the competition with some friends and had a positive experience. He’s since participated in several more launches, including the May 5 launch.
Fisher said rockets provide not only entertainment value but practical application as well. For example, rockets can put satellites into orbit and may eventually provide space travel. He also said the biggest misunderstanding people have about rockets is the difficulty of building them.
“I was surprised at how simple it can be and how easy it is to get into and start learning,” he said. “Of course there’s a lot of complicated things that you can do with them, but you can start small and just kind of build up until you’re launching bigger rockets.”
Meik agreed people misunderstand rockets’ difficulty and said once people come to the BYU Rocketry Club, they can build something successful and realize they’re capable.
“And I think that’s why our club is growing so fast,” he said. “I wish people knew that it’s not that hard and that they can get involved and they can just jump right into it.”
Garrison said the BYU Rocketry Club growth has been “explosive,” going from a handful of students who knew virtually nothing about rockets to over 60 students, a group so large they can no longer meet in their lab space.
“And I think it’s just going to continue to grow because there’s a huge interest in space right now,” he said. “The space industry is exciting again, like it was in the 60s. And that’s because of SpaceX and other private companies that have kind of come out of nowhere and started doing things that inspire people to want to work on rockets.”
He also said the best part of the BYU Rocketry Club is getting a different, hands-on perspective of engineering, which has helped him both obtain and perform well at internships. Club involvement has also helped other students land internships at companies such as SpaceX, Orbital ATK and Northrop Grummon. Garrison will soon be working for SpaceX in McGregor, Texas.
Meik agreed the BYU Rocketry Club provides unique experiences that are attractive to job and internship recruiters.
“You learn a lot from the smaller rockets that also apply to the bigger rockets and allow (students) to work in the actual space industry,” he said.