By Drew Hamilton
White Sands Missile Range Public Affairs
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. – Air Force Academy cadets helped support Air Force space programs with the launch of a rocket from White Sands Missile Range early April 17.
The FalconLAUNCH VII, a boosted dart rocket designed and tested by the cadets, left the ground at 5:17 a.m. with a pair of test payloads on board. Burning off more than 100 pounds of fuel in less than five seconds, the rocket was designed to then release an unpowered dart that would coast to an altitude of approximately 355,000 feet.
Radar data shows the rocket’s boosted dart section reached an altitude of 354,724 feet. This set world records for both altitude and speed of university-built rockets.
On board the dart was an avionics package that recorded the rockets performance and will be collected be a recovery team for analysis. Also on the dart was an experimental fin tip supporting Air Force Research Laboratory’s Future Responsive Access to Space program. The mounting of the fin tip on FalconLAUNCH VII will provide data on the fins performance at subsonic, transonic and supersonic speeds. (At the time of this writing the rocket and payload had not been recovered.)
For their capstone project, FalconLAUNCH cadets are required to build and launch their own rocket with the goal of sending a scientific payload into space in support of Department of Defense research.
While there are several different capstone projects, FalconLAUNCH is one of the Academy’s most complex and challenging capstone projects.
As a two semester course the program gives cadets majoring in fields like aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer engineering a chance to ‘learn space by doing space’ as they employ the skills taught at the Academy in a developmental environment.
“The big picture with FalconLAUNCH is to learn the system engineering process,” said Cadet 1st Class Brad DeWees, FalconLAUNCH VII program manager.
Working directly with WSMR test officials from Army, Air Force and Navy offices, the cadets got a taste of rocket science first hand.
“When we first started I thought of it as putting a rocket together, but it’s a lot more than that. Learning what it’s like to manage a program like this has been a great experience and it’s the sort of thing you can only learn from a program like this,” Cadet DeWees said.
Like many other test programs FalconLAUNCH required that the cadets not only design and build a new rocket, but also solve all the problems that come up throughout the system engineering and testing process.
Early in the project the team had trouble just finding out how to build a rocket, often having to go back to the archives of earlier space missions for solutions.
“That was kind of cool, going through the old 1970’s NASA documents,” said Cadet 1st Class Ozzie Ortiz, a fin design specialist.
As the program went on the cadets had to solve many more engineering problems. “It’s amazing how many little brushfires we’ve had to put out. I can think of two times in the last month that the shot was cancelled, and we’ve still managed to push through,” Cadet DeWees said.
The FalconLaunch program’s end-goal is to provide the Air Force and Department of Defense with a cost-efficient, operationally responsive method of delivering small scientific and engineering payloads into lower earth orbit.