At Northwest Indian College, It's Rocket Science, as Students Apply Learning to Competing


The clichéd exhortation to “reach for the stars!” has taken on new, practical meaning as students at Northwest Indian College (NWIC), located within the Lummi Nation, in Bellingham, Washington prepare to compete this year in NASA’s University Student Launch Initiative. USLI is scheduled for blast-off on April 21 at Bragg Farms in Toney, Alabama, which is near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. The NASA program requires students to design, develop and launch a reusable rocket that carries a science data-gathering payload. Under USLI criteria, the rocket must return to Earth in good-enough shape that it can have its motor replaced and be relaunched. Shooting rockets high into the sky is great fun, but the initiative’s ultimate goal is to encourage college-level students to pursue careers in engineering and other science, technology and mathematics fields.

At NWIC, Team SkyWalkers—more than a dozen students from five tribes ranging in age from 19 to 58—are building their rocket under the watchful eye of faculty advisor Gary Brandt, who has taught sciences, computers, electronics, robotics and a little bit of physics at NWIC since 1989. “Students from my class and I were sitting around one afternoon in November of 2009 trying to figure out how we could take all the stuff we were learning and do some fun things with it,” he recalls. They decided to build rockets, even though none of them had any experience in the field. From that unassuming beginning, the rocketry program at NWIC took off. “We didn’t know anything about high-powered rockets, but we went out and shot off a few little model rockets,” says Brandt. “We were invited to go to First Nations Launch at the College of the Menominee Nation, scheduled for the following May. We built a real rocket [for that] and ended up in second place. We also went to a NASA workshop in Logan, Utah in May, then in August 2010, we found out about NASA’s University Student Launch Initiative, scheduled for April 2011. We had to have our application ready by September.”

Paul Ballew, a 20-year-old second-year Lummi student, joined the team (known last year as Team RezRiders) just before they went to Alabama to participate in their first NASA competition in April 2011. “It was a completely new experience for me,” he says. “I met a lot of people there and did a lot of talking. I gave a formal presentation on the science payload for the other competitors and NASA scientists and engineers. I explained that the payload bay in our rocket carried sensors for atmospheric data, heat, barometric pressure, temperature and solar irradiance and talked about what the sensors did, where they went in the rocket and how we were operating them from the ground.”

Brandt describes what happened after the presentations, when competitors went outside to send off their rockets: “That launch was our ‘Catastrophe at 2,300 Feet’ flight. The launch pad collapsed on liftoff and caused the rocket to veer off to the left. The rocket was damaged; and when it accelerated, it broke apart. The altimeter part of rocket got to 2,300 feet; the engine just kept going. Our rocket was totaled.

Team members with Rocket Frankenstein

Team members with Rocket Frankenstein

“We still did get quite a lot of data because the rocket flew for a few seconds, and data were being collected as it was parachuting down. The goal was to get up to a mile in the air, but because the launch pad failed, our rocket failed to attain that height,” says Brandt.

Asked whether the launch pad was NWIC’s or NASA’s, Brandt says it was the latter’s. “Ours don’t fail—or haven’t yet,” he says with a smile.

Thomas Doyle, 19, a first-year student from the Lummi Nation, explains how that launch was supposed to go. “The rocket is launched and goes up with the standard fire out of the bottom of the rocket that you see in the movies. A signal from the altimeter detonates a black powder charge, which creates an explosion that separates the rocket into three parts—the back, where the drogue [small] parachute is located, which allows the rocket to slow down so the large parachute can open; the front, where the main parachute is located; and the payload, which connects them both. All three pieces remain tied together. The large parachute stops the disassembled rocket from falling to the ground and breaking. The pieces are recovered and reused in the next rocket. Usually this all goes very smoothly.”

The failure of the launch pad was not critical to NASA’s evaluation of the team’s effort, says Brandt. “The actual flight portion is relatively small point-wise. Your post-flight and the whole ‘getting things built’ and ‘getting things to work preflight’ and all that stuff adds up. We just didn’t get what they call a ‘successful launch,’ and we didn’t get any points for the altitude or for the recovery.” Nonetheless the team placed 17th in a field of 33.

Brandt remembers the thrills he and the students experienced at the 2011 launch event. “Just to be in an area where all this historical and current rocket and space stuff is going on is exciting,” he says. “During the banquet at the end of the launch event, we had a Saturn 5 rocket, which sent the Apollo missions into space between 1963 and 1972, hanging above our heads in the banquet room. The Saturn 5 is 363 feet tall, 33 feet in diameter and weighs more than 6 million pounds [when fully fueled]. It’s pretty awe-inspiring.”

The NASA USLI competition includes a tour of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, safety inspections, presentations and a banquet. On launch day itself, each rocket is actually in the air for only about two minutes, explains Brandt, but it takes nine months to get ready—there is an immense amount of work involved in designing, building, testing and modifying the team’s high-powered rocket.

Applications for the 2012 event were due at the end of September and applicants were informed of whether they would participate in mid-October, just days before a NASA teleconference with the teams that applied. In December, Preliminary Design Review Presentations were due, followed by the Critical Design Review in January. This month, a PowerPoint presentation on the Critical Design Review is due. A Flight Readiness Review follows in March with a Flight Readiness Review Presentation scheduled just a few days before teams leave for Alabama for the April 21 launch date. There are also test flights and reports on budget, outreach, safety and myriad other topics. The Post-Launch Assessment Review is due May 7 and winners will be announced May 18. Getting everything done correctly and on time is a formidable project-management task, which involves keeping an “interesting variety of students together as a team for nine months,” says Brandt. (NWIC’s reports, which give an indication of the magnitude of the venture, are available on the team’s blog, at

Buffy Towle, a 58-year-old Lummi elder, is a senior this year in NWIC’s Native Environmental Science program. She is working on the

microcontroller for this year’s rocket, a pivotal role. “The microcontroller in the rocket takes readings from the altimeter. We want it to reach 5,280 feet this year. We get penalized for every foot above or below. I’m going to be programming the microcontroller to trigger what we call brakes, two little doors that come out and slow the rocket down, like flaps on an airplane. We came up with an algorithm that allows us to take the velocity and the density of the air as the rocket’s going up, so we should be able to deploy the brakes at the right time.”

The payload for the Team SkyWalker rocket this year also includes a 900 MHz transmitter because NASA wants to receive data from the rocket without using a USB stick or a memory card, says Towle. “The data will be transmitted directly to their receiving station. We have our data logger, which will be recording along with the pictures. After the rocket hits the ground it takes a reading every 50 seconds for 10 minutes. Then it sends the information to NASA’s station, instead of us having to go and take a memory card out of the rocket to send to NASA.”

NASA has selected 42 colleges and universities to participate in the program this year, nine more than in 2011, which makes this competition even more challenging than last year’s. “In 2011,” says Brandt, “we had do our science experiment and report the data after the flight was over. This year, they want us to transmit the data from the science experiment before it hits the ground and for 10 minutes afterward. The size of the motor is also limited, which means we don’t have as much leeway in designing the payload. And there is still the goal of making the rocket go exactly one mile into the air. ” This year’s rocket is almost 10 feet long, four inches in diameter, and has a fin span of 14 inches. Fully loaded, the fiberglass rocket weighs 33 pounds. Last year’s rocket was made of a treated corrugated cardboard to keep it light, but since test flights are usually conducted in nearby wetlands and need to be sturdy, the team decided to use fiberglass this year.

Brandt says the NWIC team is on schedule, or perhaps even a little ahead of schedule, for the 2012 launch. “The NASA scientists have been really helpful and supportive,” says Towle. The next milestone in the team’s schedule will be a test launch of the full-scale rocket.

And of course there is the issue of funds. “Last year we did lots of begging and pleading, grant writing, and begging and pleading,” says Brandt. “We were lucky to have gotten grants from NASA, the American Indian College Fund, the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium, the Lummi Nation, plus some of our own fund-raising. The rocket is relatively cheap, but we need to pay for travel and lodging for everyone.”

Brandt sums up what this competition means to his students: “The most exciting thing for me is seeing how these students get the realization that we can compete with anyone, with MIT or the University of Michigan. The students rub shoulders with students from big universities, they’re talked to as peers and potential scientists. It tells them ‘We’re just as good as anyone.’?”