USC Rocket Lab shoots for the moon

Tucked behind the familiar food courts and fountains of the Ronald Tutor Campus Center lies the Rapp Engineering Building, home to USC’s Rocket Propulsion Laboratory. Enter through an unsuspecting door nestled in the back alley, and you’ll be greeted by the smell of machine grease, the whisper of a nearby wind tunnel and a fleet of retired rockets adorning the walls and ceiling. Here, undergraduate student engineers are working tirelessly to realize their mission to send a rocket into space.

The magic number is 328,084 feet, more than 200 times the height that the Goodyear Blimp flies over the Coliseum during game days. Recently, the engineers at RPL have been getting even closer to their goals with some exciting projects. Last November, engineers of the RPL launched a rocket in the Mojave Desert that reached 25,000 feet and traveled at a speed of Mach 1.1, faster than the speed of sound. The Déjà Vu rocket was considered a great success by the engineers of the RPL not only for its height and speed but also for its aerodynamics.

According to Allie Gehris, a junior majoring in astronautical engineering and chief propulsion engineer and communications officer of RPL, the Déjà Vu’s success was the result of learning from RPL’s past mistakes.

“We have had a lot of trouble aerodynamically in past rockets, and we’ve worked it out with some number crunching and problem solving,” Gehris said.

Compared to previous rockets, Déjà Vu flew in a much straighter path and its functions operated mostly as predicted. Those who missed out on the spectacle of the November launch will have the opportunity to see the Déja Vu in action again, as the engineers of the RPL designed the rocket to be reusable, hence the name.

But RPL’s newest rocket is expected to shine even brighter than Déjà Vu. The engineers at RPL project that the rocket could reach speeds of Mach 4 — four times the speed of sound — and heights of 180,000 feet. In addition, they predict that the newest rocket will have improved aerodynamics, since that has received so much attention in the design process. The still unnamed rocket is currently nearing the end of the design and planning phase, as minor parts are being fabricated. Once completed, the rocket will launch from the Black Rock Desert. Gehris encourages all who are interested to join the electric environment.

“On launch days, there’s a ton of energy in the atmosphere, there are a lot of last minute to dos and everybody is making sure that they’re system is going to be perfect,” Gehris said. Everybody is jittery with nervous energy. All of your work, hopes, and dreams are sitting on a launch rail.”

Involvement in the RPL is open to any student of any major with no GPA requirement. Although members are mostly Viterbi majors, the team has members from Dornsife and Marshall informing the process as well.

According to Michael Thorson, a sophomore studying astronautical engineering, RPL can serve as a great learning experience even for those who have never built a rocket before.

“There is a general acceptance of any skill level,” Thorson said. “Come to rocket lab with no experience and be taught to build a rocket from scratch.”

Thorson joined the rocket lab last year, and since then has learned a variety of skills in rocket engineering. His role in the next rocket includes laying composites for the structure of the rocket, specifically the nose cone and the motor case. Members are encouraged to contribute what they’re passionate about, according to Thorson.

“If you want to build a circuit-board, you can do that too,” Thorson said.

In addition to high level math skills, complex engineering, and brilliant problem solving, these students bring an element of Trojan pride to their work. Rockets designed to potentially reach space are named after the school’s mascot, Traveller. So far the team has built many iterations of the Traveler series of rockets, eagerly awaiting the day that one of them will leave the planet’s atmosphere.

The organization’s drive toward its goal is strong, and Gehris notes that rocket clubs are being created at more and more universities across the country.

“There’s a lot of competition with other schools,” Gehris said. “UC San Diego has the goal to sent a rocket into space. Among other schools there’s Embry-Riddle, Boston University, and [University of Maine], they’ve all recently had some rocket clubs pop up. Stanford wants to be the first to send a university built rocket to space. They also want to build two satellites, and a high altitude balloon.”