Students build model rockets to further engineering interests

October 17, 2018

On the way back from a robotics competition, with the excitement of SpaceX’s recent Falcon Heavy launch on his mind, Harper Rhett suggested to his friend Will Sebelik that they start a rocketry club. A month later, alongside their friend and first member, Josh Torrance, they started Vulcan Rocketry and Aviation with a goal of building a model rocket that could fly 100 feet into the air.

“We decided [on] 100 feet because that seems easy enough to achieve,” Sebelik said, “but we also figured we could build on it later. Once we achieved it, we could, say, go to 200 feet or 500 feet or something.”

While most school-affiliated rocketry clubs focus on ordered parts and aerodynamics, Rhett said, he and Sebelik wanted to run their unofficial club differently.

With some assistance, Sebelik works on constructing the rocket. It’s very important to the club that they make all of their rocket parts from scratch, even if that makes the process more strenuous. Photo courtesy of Harper Rhett.

“We wanted the rocketry club to be unique, so we decided we would make everything from scratch,” Rhett said.

With only a shaky knowledge of rocketry, the trio started up the club around March using online resources as a guide. However, the process didn’t click immediately. It took two weeks of trial and error with different fuel for them to settle on making sugar-powered rockets.

The boys 3D printed their parts and made their own motors for their rocket. To make things simpler, they created a frame for the rocket that they could reuse for multiple launches. Then, they had to test their engine and their choice of fuel. It took a lot of figuring out, Sebelik said, but “it’s easier now.”

One of the difficulties they encountered was igniting the engine when performing launches and engine tests. They tried various lighting tools including matches, a blowtorch and a laser. They settled on using store-bought model rocket launchers that ignite the engine by creating an electric arc inside, Sebelik said.

After weeks of testing and tweaking, they were finally ready to launch the first model of their rocket, Hermes I. On May 6, they headed to the Decatur Cemetery for their launch. Unfortunately, their efforts were unsuccessful.

“It was pretty disappointing and anticlimactic,” Rhett said, “because [the rocket] just fizzled and then died.”

They went back to the drawing board and addressed the problems with the model. Then, in early August, they launched the second model, Hermes II.

Torrance (left), Rhett (center) and Sebelik (right) pose with Hermes II days before the launch. Photo courtesy of Harper Rhett.

The boys found more success the second time around. Their rocket flew 10 feet into the air, but then it lost control. It spun out and hit the ground again.

With hopes of the third time being the charm, the boys had to evaluate the causes of their failures. Sebelik concluded that the old engine used in the first launch was the root of the problem. He believes it absorbed humidity that day in May, and thus, its power decreased over time.

“Thinking about it, it makes sense,” Sebelik said, “but I was kind of disappointed the first launch, and I was really excited the second launch because we got off the launchpad.”

In preparation for the third launch, the boys switched to caramelizing the sugar used for fuel instead of packing it into the engine in its powdered state. According to Sebelik, making the fuel denser by compressing more of it in one place creates more power. Another step they took to increase the engine’s power was shrinking the nozzle.

On Sept. 8, the club headed to a new location, the United Methodist Children’s Home, for the launch of Hermes III. Despite many launch attempts with minor tweaks in between, the day’s launch resulted in the fuel burning through the fins of the rocket.

In spite of the letdown, the club will continue to launch their rocket until they reach their goal. To make the next launch even more successful, Rhett said they’ll print a new nozzle and Sebelik said they’ll use new fuel along with a fuse.

However, successfully launching Hermes 100 feet into the air isn’t their only goal for the club. Rhett wants to enter a rocketry competition, but he’s struggled to find one he wants to take part in.

“There’s not many rocketry competitions where everyone makes their parts from scratch and everything,” Rhett said, “so we want to look into that and find a way where we can put ourselves out there and compare ourselves to other rocketry clubs.”

Vulcan Rocketry doesn’t just want to measure their abilities compared to others. They also have personal goals, such as creating liquid fuel rockets.

“[Liquid fuel rockets are] something that not many model rocketry people do, and it would be pretty cool if we could get there,” Rhett said.

According to Torrance, liquid fuel rockets mix oxygen necessary for burning with the fuel, bring the mixture into the engine and ignite the engine. Rhett said liquid fuel rockets are more powerful than sugar rockets. Sebelik added that liquid fuel rockets more easily allow them to drop the fuel tank to reduce the weight of the rocket and let it soar higher.

As the club continues working on their goals, they’ve found challenges they must address to continue. The club is currently at capacity with five members total and a waitlist of expectant rocketeers. Rhett attributes this to a lack of space to hold large numbers while Torrance cites the lack of tasks to occupy a large group of people. Still, they’re hopeful that they can expand their club. Sebelik recently moved into a new house and hopes they can use his larger basement that can hold more people for their meetings. Additionally, the club is running out of money for producing their rockets, so they’ve set up a GoFundMe campaign to fund the next model of their rocket.

Even though the idea for a rocketry club may have been a spur-of-the-moment decision, Sebelik has no regrets.

“I personally knew that I’m interested in that kind of thing,” Sebelik said. “I didn’t think I’d be doing a high school club for rockets, but I’m glad that I’m doing it now.”

Currently, Vulcan Rocketry is hard at work improving their rocket for the fourth model. The boys will continue rocketry in hopes of someday reaching their sky high dreams.

Final Launch of Hermes III from Nayeli Shad on Vimeo.

Contact the writer, Nayeli Shad, at Photos by Nayeli Shad.

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