Carl Dietrich heard about the Cheap Access to Space (CATS) contest from a friend during the summer of 1998, just before he entered his senior year at MIT. It was a match made in the heavens.
"It sounded like a cool idea," recalled Mr. Dietrich, an aeronautics and astronautics graduate student, who was thinking about the challenge as much as the $250,000 prize. "I wondered why we didn't have something like that around here."
Thus the MIT Rocket Team was born.
The team is competing in the contest sponsored by the Foundation for International Non-governmental Development of Space and the Space Frontier Foundation. The cash prize will be awarded to the first group to launch a suborbital rocket 200km in altitude (about 120 miles) by November 8, 2000. The current record is about 25 miles.
Mr. Dietrich (SB 1999), who has applied for a patent for a kerosene and liquid oxygen-fueled engine he designed in 1998, is working full time on the project with mechanical engineering alumnus Andrew Heafitz (SB 1991), who joined the team by serendipitous accident.
"I was looking for a project and somebody mentioned unmanned aerial robotics," said Mr. Heafitz, a former Westinghouse Science Award winner at Newton South High School. "I was dawdling after their meeting and these guys came into the room and started talking about their new rocket engine. They caught my attention. It sounded real interesting. The allure was that it was simple, made of easy-to-use materials, and it had never been done before."
Their vehicle will be approximately 14 feet tall and eight inches in diameter -- considerably smaller than comparable vehicles fueled by solid propellants. The size was dictated by the facilities available to construct and test vehicle components, which would not accommodate larger vehicles and heavy pressurized tanks.
The MIT rocket's launch weight will be approximately 200 pounds. It is made of a lightweight carbon fiber composite, while the engine is primarily made of aluminum, stainless steel and a silica-pheno composite material.
While high-tech by amateur rocket standards, the MIT vehicle is simple compared to most vehicles designed to reach such high altitudes. The engine design reduces the complexity of both the engine and structure compared to government and commercial designs for liquid-fueled launch vehicles. If successful, the technology could lead the way to cheaper, simpler commercial space launch vehicles.
The team plans to launch an 18-inch model on Briggs Field this spring. Powered by a rocket the size of a small firecracker, the model is expected to rise several hundred feet. The model incorporates design aspects generated by several members of the team.
Team members traveled to the launch/test facility at Wallops Island, VA, recently to meet with NASA engineers and administrators as well as representatives of the Virginia Spaceport Authority. In the near future, they hope to begin the design and safety review process with NASA, a stepping stone to a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration and approval to launch at Wallops.
Fifty-six undergraduates and graduate students have worked on the project over the past two years, with 12-20 actively involved at any one time. Alumni/ae, faculty and staff advisors, and high school students have also been involved in the project, which is sponsored by the Departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Mechanical Engineering.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 12, 2000.