Aptly named after the university’s mascot, a vessel dubbed Traveler was launched on Sept. 21 in the Nevada desert by the USC Rocket Propulsion Lab, a student-run group based at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
Founded in 2004 by Ian Whittinghill, the lab’s team builds rockets from the ground up. In 2011, Traveler was put together with plans to soar just past the border of the Earth’s
atmosphere and reach the fringes of outer space.
Though the rocket did not reach its goal, the overall experience was invaluable for the team and marked some historic firsts for the lab: It was the biggest rocket with the most advanced tracking system the team had ever built. And having the opportunity to launch the rocket, which required clearances from multiple government agencies, was an achievement in itself.
The Black Rock Desert — the location of the launch — is situated two hours north of Reno, Nev., though it feels worlds away from civilization. The dry lakebed, or playa, is surrounded by mountains and goes on for mile after mile of flat, dusty, cracked sand.
On Sept. 20, the team was assembled to prepare for the launch and recovery of the vessel.
Inside a mobile trailer, students assembled the rocket — pinning together the pieces of the main body, installing the avionics system, which provides all the tracking and data of the rocket, and capping it with the nose cone, signed by American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
These highly driven students designed and built Traveler over two years ago, but getting the clearances to send it to space proved challenging. After several requests were denied by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), this year the lab finally collected the required permits along with maps with designated landing zones.
But there was one other obstacle: the weather.
The team’s first opportunity to launch Traveler came on Sept. 20 between 5 and 7 p.m. But the winds rushing through the playa at 30 miles per hour put a damper on that plan: The team couldn’t launch with winds exceeding 17 mph.
By the time those winds finally died down, the window had closed.
After that, the team had to wait an entire day. Several members of the group went to the nearby town of Gerlach to watch the USC football game against Utah State. Team leader Jordan Noone mused that he was in no frame of mind to enjoy the game, exclaiming, “It’s not beat the Aggies; it’s ‘beat the atmosphere!”
While the winds cooperated that day, the rain and clouds did not.
The playa is a long stretch of fine, powdery sand. Any moisture turns it into a muddy pool, which would make recovering the rocket and leaving the area a near impossibility.
Though it did rain lightly in the afternoon, the moisture did not hinder the operation. But at 5 p.m. when the rocket was loaded on the launch pad and teams were standing by, the low clouds presented a new problem: The clearance granted by the FAA specified that the team could not launch with low cloud cover. And that’s exactly what existed.
An approaching hole in the clouds provided a ray of hope and the launch was postponed until that window in the cloud cover was directly overhead.
Nearly 40 minutes later, the team began the countdown, but it was abruptly halted by a voice coming over the two-way radios: “Wait. There’s a train.”
Poised to launch, the team had to wait four minutes for a train to pass through the valley.
At 6:07 p.m. on Sept. 21, the weather, FAA regulations and train schedules aligned, Traveler was launched triumphantly into the air.
It takes approximately 13 minutes for a rocket to reach the border of space and fall back to earth, but within seconds of liftoff, pieces of the rocket were scattered across the playa.
As launch crew team member Sarah Cusson explained: “It looked like it exploded around 20,000 feet. It was burning too fast. When a rocket goes up, only a certain amount of fuel is supposed to burn at once and too much was burning, which caused a pressure spike, and the casing basically split in two.”
Far from downtrodden, the students quickly gathered the fallen pieces of the rocket: the nose cone here, the main body there, a fin nearby. They were eager to piece together what went wrong, learn from the experience and start construction on Traveler II.
Rocket Lab founder Whittinghill explained the team’s outlook in the face of what may seem to be a failure.
“Despite the fact that it didn’t quite make it all the way, it was an amazing set of firsts for the lab,” he said. “The number of failures are small in comparison to the number of successes, and we are so well poised to try again.”
Team member Brandon Edelson agreed: “To us, the failures are almost as cool as the successes. When it explodes, it’s just as awesome.”