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Wait, This Is Rocket Science

by Kate Crisalli

For most undergraduate students, research is something accomplished under the careful guidance of a professor. But for Ian Whittinghill, founder of the USC Rocket Propulsion Lab, the best learning is done independently — and hands-on.

Whittinghill, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering, spent his first few semesters at USC working on campus at the Air Force Research Laboratory, and helping to develop projects as a member of the Aero Design Team. The experience, he said, gave him insight into how an engineering project progresses from concept to physical object. It also inspired him to initiate a new research program. “I thought USC might be excited about a project like the Rocket Propulsion Lab,” he explained, “where a group of really passionate kids would have a chance to build hardware and get hands-on experience in engineering for aerospace.”

Whittinghill found an ally in USC professor of astronautics Daniel Ervin, who agreed to be the group’s adviser. He also was instrumental in securing funding, finding lab space and recruiting new members. After Ervin announced the fledgling project to his freshman aeronautics class, nearly 20 of his students showed up at the Rocket Propulsion Lab’s first meeting. As Whittinghill recalled, “They really amazed me. Despite the fact that this was a brand new project with no infrastructure, they jumped right in and helped get things going.” Nearly 95 percent of the freshmen who showed up for that first meeting remain on the project.

Success came last May, when the group launched a rocket at a test site in the Mojave Desert. The last weeks before the launch were hectic. Final exams were over and students’ housing contracts were expiring. Whittinghill was impressed with the group’s dedication and tenacity. The students stayed on campus, crashed in friends’ apartments and worked around the clock to complete the project. The team pulled an intense all-nighter just before the launch. “Twenty-four hours before it lifted off, no two parts of the rocket had been assembled,” Whittinghill said.

Nonetheless, the launch was letter-perfect. The group named its rocket Del Carbon, a nod to its carbon-fiber construction and to the late-night eatery where the team often snacked. Members estimated that Del Carbon reached an altitude of 7,000 feet. It was purposely flown with a relatively small engine so that its body could be recovered and flown again. The team hopes to test the rocket with a full-size engine next month.

The Rocket Propulsion Lab’s main goal for this year is research and experimentation with hybrid rockets. The term “hybrid” refers to a type of propulsion system which is more complicated but more powerful than the one used in the first launch. Whittinghill said that hybrid rockets are “an underdeveloped technology � and that’s industry-wide, not just at the university level.” He is hoping for a successful launch with a small hybrid rocket.

After that? “Well, the international definition of space is 328,000 feet,” he said. “That’s next!

Do you know of someone who takes learning, especially undergraduate research, beyond classroom walls? If so, please e-mail Professor Mark Kann at mkann@usc.edu to suggest a feature for this column.

Wait, This Is Rocket Science

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