River City Rocketry Team Lands First Place in NASA Student Launch Competition

May 18, 2017
River City Rocketry Team Lands First Place in NASA Student Launch Competition

University of Louisville River City Rocketry, winners of NASA's Student Launch Competition

After five years of competition, the River City Rocketry team at the JB Speed School at the University of Louisville, finally took home the first-place prize. A testament to the skill and dedication of the constituent team members, River City Rocketry functions without the support of an Aerospace program, gleaning knowledge from their individual programs, pulling from the internet, or finding outside tutorials to fine hone their skills. Perhaps more noteworthy, the team operates without the added incentive of a grade, making this an entirely elective activity for everyone involved.

“They pour their hearts and souls into the team. They are ridiculously dedicated to the team," said says team captain Kevin Compton. "I was so confident that even if we didn’t win first, that we really did win first. The fact that we even did just proves how much hard work and perseverance can get you somewhere. The best and worst thing is that we don’t get credit or paid for it. We just love building rockets and want to see something get built from nothing.”

A senior in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Compton was drawn to engineering in high school, participating in Battle Bot and High Mileage Competition, before acceptance into the NASA Student Launch project during his sophomore year at Harper College. Inspired by his efforts, Compton continued on the team after transferring to the University of Louisville in the Spring of 2015.

As the team captain, Compton balances his responsibilities as a leader and delegator. He admits, “My job, especially this past season, was basically the glue that kept everything together. I knew every part of the project. I didn’t know the fine details, but I knew what was needed to get it done. When you get focused, especially when you’re the lead, you kind of put your blinders on. This year, I was able to realize that more, when someone was focused on one activity, instead of looking at the big picture.”

It was a close competition, predicated equally on vehicle performance and launch procedure. The team had a number of objectives, including showing procedural documentation and follow up, the most important aspects of the competition according to Compton. Additionally, the team had to land a section of the rocket as secondary mission, accomplished here with the use of a detachable drone, navigated partially through GPS tags. Of course, they also have requirements for the launch ceiling of the flight.

Compton explains, “If you go over 5600 feet, your flight is disqualified. We were able to get within two lengths of the rocket. To how close the competition was between us, Vanderbilt, and Cornell, I think it came down to altitude. They were both 200 to 300 off of their altitude, ours was 23 feet. Our goal was to have it plus or minus 33 feet. We won the vehicle design award.”

"Everyone needs to realize the immense amount of work that these students have done, all on their own time and with zero academic credit," said Dr. John Usher, Interim Speed School Dean. "This is not just building a rocket, but rather it includes preparation of an 800-page document, website, outreach program to kids, safety manual, multiple design reviews with NASA, and much more."

The team walked away with a $5000 first place prize, which they have already committed to next year’s project. Ultimately, it’s less about a victory and more about the experience, and continuity of the team. Compton believes the project valuable as a learning opportunity for hands on engineering. Not only are students introduced to the manufacturing reality of fabrication –what is and isn’t feasible- but they are afforded critical workforce skills.

“Even when they go on co-op, they don’t even question how we can write, because they see what we did on co-op or see what we do on the rocket team. You’ve got to know how to technical write,” said Compton.

As to their victory lap, in addition to going out for drinks with team alumni, Compton and team may visit an actual launch, possibly at Space X, although they’re happy to visit any site this summer.