Written by H. Greg Peebles
I was on my knees only a few inches from the recently crashed rocket. This was our last flight of the day with only minutes before the judging deadline, which was last thing on my mind now. I could hear the sound of the electronic heartbeat of the flight avionics letting everyone know that it was active, armed and ready to detonate. The rocket was nose deep in the dirt with the rest protruding from the ground like some javelin thrown by a spurious competitor only yards from the launch pad. What the heck had happened? I’ll have to figure it out later. Right now I had to disarm the explosive separation charge. Tools in hand, I took a deep breath and let it out gently to steady myself, I reached for the first fastener between me and the charge that could make it a very bad day if I slipped up…
Five hours earlier our caravan of six vehicles arrived at the rocket launch field near Cody’s Corner, FL for the Florida Space Grant Consortium Northeast Florida Association of Rocketry Annual Hybrid Rocket Competition. I was stunned to see that several other schools had already staked out their turf—usually we were first. This year is going to be different. Of the 20 or so members of the FIT Student Rocket Society on the competition teams only one or two were sophomores—all the rest were freshmen. This was our youngest & least experienced team in 8 years.
This year there were teams from 9 schools: Daytona State, ERAU, FIT, FIU, UCF, UF (8 gator teams), UM, USF and UWF. In the past 4-5 schools have fielded one or two teams. This was an exponential change.
As we rushed to set up our launch equipment, a team from the matching polo wearing gators was on their pad ready to go. This year is going to be different. 3, 2, 1… POP. Their oxidizer fuel line burst. We saw this last year. Maybe things aren’t so different after all—only a whole lot more competitors this time around.
The FIT Precision team was ready. The pad was ready (darn fast, they never did it that quick in practice). Oxidizer was tanking. Range gave us clearance, still tanking. Still tanking. This is taking forever. FIT Precisionspotter sees tank venting. All is go… 3, 2, 1… Tanking stopped & fire switch closed, holding, holding… whoosh. Beautiful dagger of white pierces the sky trailing a column of white smoke. Almost out of sight… the parachute deployed perfectly! Boy, is it windy and the rocket is moving. I am nervous that the first launch for the day by any team may be lost and disqualified. No worries—30 minutes later the bird is recovered: 2300 ft altitude with a target of 2000. There’s plenty of time left in the day for one or two more attempts.
Before the FIT precision team returns, the FIT Max Altitude team is ready. The pad is adjusted for their rocket. The rocket is brown, 38mm in diameter, and over 1.2 meters in length—a race horse in the gate chomping to be released. We have to wait. Several other universities are ready to go. Countdown after countdown, launch failure followed by launch failure. No one other that FIT seems to be able to cut the air with their tech. Finally it is our turn again. 3, 2, 1 … woosh. Huh? The rocket leaped upwards and made a hard turn to the right. This filly is having trouble following the track—it’s flying parallel to the ground 500 feet up – no wait, it’s turning, rather looping. No wait, it’s pointed straight up and looks to be standing still. It’s back on track straight up after a considerable detour and many hearts stopping. Parachute deploys and rocket is recovered. It reached 744 feet altitude, but may have traveled 4000 feet to get there. This year IS going to be different.
Precision Team is back and has reported their data to the judges. They are recycling for another flight. The Precision computers are out and the changes are being calculated. Max Altitude team is ready again. Max has the jump on everyone and still no other schools are in the air. 3, 2, 1… cloud of white smoke and no flight. We have burned through an oxidizer line without ignition. Dang, the deployment charge is still live in rocket in the launch tower. This could get bad really fast. Carefully, oh so slowly. If the electronic detects a launch, the charge will be armed and the rocket is lifted out of the tower. No arming signals—phew. The rocket is taken apart and the charge removed.
Other schools are ready again. This time the fates are letting them fly. Beautiful flight by FIU and UF gets a team off the ground. This year we have real slugfest. I focus only on FIT flights as I go on…
FIT precision has another successful flight, but only at 1690 ft. The winds had changed since the first flight—it’s back to the simulators and they have no more motors made in advance. I get asked if they can field build a motor to fly. We only have parts for one more motor andthey are old, but seemingly in good condition. I give the ok. Max altitude has repaired the oxidizer line damage in their motor. They are ready to go again.
Ignition switch pressed. Holding, holding—still holding. Is this ever….woosh. Another skywriting flight. The design simply can’t cope with the winds for the day. Max team recovers and reports to the judges.
Precision is back on the Pad. Will be their third flight if successful? 15 minutes until the judges close the contest range. Range officer clears us. The rocket launches—What? The motor stops a few feet after a full power launch. Without thrust, the white knife-like rocket leans over and stabs the ground hard.
I carefully remove the first fastener, then the next and so on until the charge is exposed. The wire cutters do their work and the charge is disarmed. No one was hurt and I’m breathing again.
This was the biggest roller coaster ride of a hybrid rocket competition. The young FIT teams did very well. And when I heard the results, I was thrilled!
The team results are based on points for the launch of the rockets and the points awarded for notebooks, team built rockets and motors and deducted for status reports.
FIT Max Team – 1st Place
UWF Max Team – 2nd Place
UF Max Team 1 – 3rd Place
UCF 2K Team – 1st Place
FIT 2K Team – 2nd Place
FIU 2K Team – 3rd Place
A great year for the Florida Tech Student Rocket Society!