By John Van Winkle
Academy Public Affairs
PINON CANYON MANUEVER SITE, Colo. – The Air Force Academy’s latest cadet-built rocket took to the skies of Southern Colorado Sunday to support a Department of Defense test program.
FalconLaunch 8 blasted off shortly after 11 a.m. Sunday morning from the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, 30 miles northeast of Trinidad, Colo.
FalconLaunch 8 is the latest in a series of cadet-designed and cadet-built rockets under the Department of Astronautics’ FalconLaunch program. Each academic year, a new multi-disciplinary team of senior cadets takes the two-semester capstone course and advances the FalconLaunch program a step toward the program’s end goal by designing and launching a new version of the FalconLaunch rocket.
This year’s FalconLaunch was the first Academy sounding rocket to fly a Department of Defense payload, said Col. Tim Lawrence, director of the Space Systems Research Center at the Space and Missile Systems Center, which is based out of Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. The “ExFIT” payload, sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory and designed by the Air Force Institute of Technology, was built to provide data on high-Mach launch loads on lifting bodies.
“FalconLaunch 8 provided 40 seconds of key data for this future system,” Colonel Lawrence said. “This is the first time ever that the Academy – or any other university in the world – has been able to provide a launcher to deliver such data.”
The data gathered from the flight will be used to verify the fin’s ability to provide better supersonic lateral stability at high angles of attack, for possible use in a future reusable reentry space vehicle, said Cadet 1st Class Aaron Price, FalconLaunch 8’s program manager.
The ExFIT payload was an instrumented, experimental fin tip on two of the rocket’s stabilizing fins. AFRL’s use of the FalconLaunch vehicle gave the Air Force a highly cost-effective testing and demonstration platform: a comparable launch through commercial or other space assets would cost millions of dollars, but using the FalconLaunch 8 as a demonstration platform only cost AFRL $10,000.
An igniter issue forced some design modifications to the rocket after a successful static test fire of the rocket here on Jan. 15 produced a longer-then-expected burn of more than 10 seconds and less peak thrust than desired. The FalconLaunch 8 propulsion system has a double-taper fuel grain design capable of producing 4,000 pounds of peak thrust during a 7.8-second burn. With design modifications in place, the FalconLaunch cadets went to Piñon Canyon Saturday before conducting their launch on Sunday.
“For such complex fins and previous igniter issue, we were pleased with smooth liftoff and stable flight,” said Col. Marty France, permanent professor and head of the Department of Astronautics. “Our preliminary data analysis, though, shows that one of our key systems that controlled the recovery system failed shortly after lift-off. We searched for the rocket for two days, with great help from the Piñon Canyon folks, but were unable to find it. We are analyzing the data that were transmitted to our ground stations and will report our findings at the end-of-semester review scheduled for May 6.”
Lessons learned from the program go beyond the engineering and computer science aspects of creating an 11-foot-long, 200-pound rocket that can be launched safely and successfully.
“The cadets handled the deployment and launch operations very well,” Colonel France said. “They learned, too, that it’s not all fun and games. There were meals to fix, floors to mop, equipment to transport, unpack, and set up. We know that the lessons they learned in this arena are as important as their technical achievements.”
FalconLaunch 8 was designed to reach an altitude of 100,000 feet and achieve a speed of Mach 3 for at least five seconds during its ascent to test the experimental fins. With the launch complete, analysis of data from the flight is underway.
“One focus of our reviews will be where we go next academic year with the Class of 2011,” Colonel France said. “Frankly, we haven’t been very good at getting data from our rockets. A big part of that is in the planning and execution of the plan on the part of the cadets – complex aerospace systems can’t be rushed. We need to do solid design, extensive testing and validation and fully understand what we’re doing well in advance of any launches.”
“Space is not an arena that lends itself to a last-minute rush job to meet a deadline. The challenge for the faculty and staff is deciding when and where to allow failure when we see it may be coming so that the most important lessons are internalized before they become lieutenants. That’s an especially tough call when we have external DOD customers supporting our missions who want to see results,” he added.
The previous rocket in the program, FalconLaunch 7, set world records April 17, 2009, for both altitude and speed of a university-built rocket, reaching an altitude of 354,724 feet after launch at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
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.