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Competing at World’s Largest Collegiate Rocket Competition

November 3, 2015
Competing at World’s Largest Collegiate Rocket Competition

The Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), hosted by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association, is the world’s largest international collegiate rocket engineering competition. Teams from 47 schools around the world attended the 2015 competition. Teams were challenged to design and build rockets with a payload of 10 pounds and a target altitude of 10,000 to 23,000 feet above ground level. Unlike previous years, the 2015 competition also required that the team members design and manufacture the rocket recovery system, including designing and manufacturing the rocket’s parachutes. Teams were judged based on a rocket design poster presentation, which included a Q&A session before a panel of judges, a safety and quality of hardware and use of procedures analysis, the amount of student design and construction (versus off-the-shelf components), performance of rocket and recovery system, and professionalism of team members.


Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), Green River, Utah
By Kevin Trevino, Rocketry Project Manager AIAA at UIC 2015-2016

For the AIAA chapter at UIC, signing up late for the IREC competition was perhaps one of the best things to happen all year. During a period of about two months, a few of the members began to design and build two solid motor rockets, which were identical, yet had two different missions.  The two rockets were called the Vimana (after the mythical flying machine from Indian culture) and the U.S.S.R. (the Ultra Suka Sounding Rocket), borrowing the word suka from the Inuit name for “fast,” not the perhaps better known Polish word, and in honor of the original space race using rockets during the cold war, as well as the team’s project manager’s husky, whose name is Suka.

Students with Rocket

After weeks of sleepless nights of working on everything from the airframe construction, avionics design and integration, recovery, and painting, the two rockets were ready. The Vimana was successfully tested on a smaller commercial rocket motor at Wisconsin’s Bong State Recreational Area to ensure proper functionality of the airframe and the electronic controls, as well as the recovery systems. The second rocket, the U.S.S.R., was built shortly after testing the Vimana, at which point the team was ready for the competition.

While finishing up the rockets, the team members had to coordinate the travel plans for those who were going to the competition. A van was borrowed from UIC, and lodging arrangements were made. The trip began on the Monday of the week of the competition, and it took about a full day’s worth of travel, stopping only to eat on the way. After arriving at Green River, Utah, the team members decided it was time for some “off” time and went to Arches National Park for a hike.

The next morning started off by preparing all that was needed for a poster showing for the basic category rocket (the Vimana) and a presentation for the advanced rocket competition (the U.S.S.R.). The team members talked to the judges and had a good showing during our poster presentation, being able to answer all the questions that were prepared. However, the true challenge of the day was the presentation. Seeing that the first few teams that presented were confronted with tough questions from the judges, which they had difficulty answering, was almost discouraging. When it was our team’s time to present, we were careful to touch on every point we felt was important. When time came for the questions from the judges, one of them stood up and said: “I actually do not have any questions. Your rocket seems really solid. Good job, guys.” And naturally, we were blown away. Up to this point, none of the teams had any comment nearly as positive as this. Even the judge who was clearly the toughest simply asked a few ‘what if’ questions and had nothing more to say. The presentation went beyond well, and we were all very encouraged about our place in the competition.

Still too early for celebration, the team spent the evening preparing the rockets for the showing the next day. When we arrived at the base camp, about 45 minutes from Green River, deep into the desert, we unpacked and began completing the tasks on our checklists. The airframe and motor were ready, so the avionics went through testing to ensure proper performance. The hand made parachutes, which were designed and manufactured by the team as part of the recovery system, were then folded and secured. The team was ready. After getting approval from one of the judges, the rocket was taken to the launch pad and it was time to see the Vimana fly.

When it comes to rocketry, teams of people may work on a project for months, they may run simulations and test all the systems, but once on the launch pad it all comes down to one person pressing a button. At this point, all that is left to do is hope your hard work and your design perform the way you want.

For the team, this moment was the first showing at the biggest college level rocketry competition in the world, and we were the only school representing the entire state of Illinois. This was quite unexpected, as the University of Illinois at Chicago does not currently have an aerospace engineering program. When the countdown reached zero, the motor was fired and the Vimana took off into the sky. It was a beautiful launch and there were no problems on the way up. After it reached apogee (the highest point), people commented that the parachute did not deploy. The rocket was too high to be able to tell, but then everyone saw that the drogue parachute was opened as expected. From then on, we saw a series of responses from all the safety backups that were implemented in the design. At about 1500 ft, the main parachute opened and the rocket was visible. It was flying right above the range from where it was launched. When it finally touched ground, it was only about 150 ft from the launch pad. Everyone was surprised, as all the previous teams had touched ground so far from the launch pad that they had to go in trucks deep into the desert to pick up their rockets. For our team, it was a short walk, along with a judge who kept complementing our performance and taking pictures of the team. It was UIC’s first launch at this competition, and we were already recognized as one of the most picturesque launches of the whole competition. The altimeter read an altitude of over 7000 ft. We were all happy with our first showing.

During our second day, the U.S.S.R., which was the rocket designed for the Advanced competition, was prepared to launch. The team ensured a spot to be able to launch as early as possible. Once the approval to launch was granted, the team took the second rocket to the launch pad. The team’s confidence was higher than that of the first launch, as the first rocket had performed so well. The countdown began and the rocket took off. The rocket, as it had a very thin diameter and a black paint job, looked like an arrow darting into the sky. Once it reached apogee, everyone waited to see the events (a small release of smoke meaning that the inner charges went off), but it was too high in the sky to be able to tell without binoculars. After a few seconds of waiting, the parachute became visible and we knew the rocket had done its job. This time around, the team did not get as lucky and the rocket actually flew a few miles into the desert. After teaming up with one of the members from the ham radio club, which lent the team a transmitter, the rocket was quickly located and recovered. One of the fins had been broken but, after talking to the judges, everyone agreed that with some sanding and epoxy clay, the rocket should be re-flyable. The second ever UIC rocket launch at the IREC competition had been a success. The U.S.S.R. broke the sound barrier for about 5 seconds, which made everything more exciting. The altitude reached was over 19,000 feet.

After this time, the team was done with their part of the competition, but in order to remain active, we began to volunteer to help the judges with the set-up of the launch pads, cameras, and anything else that was needed. During this time, we assisted several other teams by lending them tools, parts, and even technical advice. The UIC team went from being a new school to becoming the “go to” school for any team that needed any sort of help.

During the awards ceremony, UIC was given two awards. One of them for the Vimana rocket having landed the closest to the launch pad, the second one for having helped so many teams as well as the judges even though we had one of the smallest teams at the competition (four members attended). For having been the first time that UIC went to the IREC competition, the team was able to give a good name to the University, as well as setting a bar for the team the following year. The plan now is to build even more impressive rockets and continue to raise the bar for the AIAA at UIC Rocket Team.

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