The USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory has made its share of headlines the past few months.
In April, the USCRPL became the first student-led organization to launch a rocket into outer space, as Traveler IV crossed the Karman Line 15 years after the group’s founding mission of putting a rocket built from scratch into space.
The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics honored the USCRPL for the historic accomplishment in early October.
Neil Tewksbury, lab lead and chief engineer of the USCRPL and a senior majoring in aerospace and mechanical engineering, said the launch and the recognition have elevated the USCRPL’s presence in the world of rocket science.
“After the launch in April and the following media announcement in May, we were able to garner a lot of attention and support, and a lot of people throughout USC and throughout the community are excited about it,” Tewksbury said “The AIAA event was great to get recognition from this organization that really pulls the industry together, and so it really shows the support from all over the industry.”
Traveler IV was the 21st rocket crafted by the USCRPL since 2004. Despite the group’s long project timeline students were capable of the achievement. In fact, the entire designing, crafting and engineering process was carried out in-house and by the USCRPL’s own students.
The group wasn’t alone in its quest to become the first student-led organization to put a rocket into space, and the competition was a significant motivator driving the USCRPL’s work. Additionally, most other student organizations across the country working on similar projects weren’t doing it all themselves. They bought parts and assembled them rather than making everything with their own hands.
Tewksbury said that while he doesn’t mean to speak down upon any of the other competing groups, the USCRPL wanted to maintain its scratch-built mentality from start to finish.
“Competition always motivates innovation,” he said. “We were like, ‘we want to do it, we want to show that it can be done completely in-house, completely built from scratch. And we lucked out.”
Since the successful launch, the group hasn’t looked back. While it was a remarkable achievement for USCRPL itself, Tewksbury doesn’t believe it represents the limit to what the group is capable of accomplishing.
He classifies Traveler IV — which went into space and then immediately came back down and landed just about 10 miles from its launch site in New Mexico — as a space shot. He aims to send vehicles that are capable of operating in space and staying there for multiple minutes at a time.
“All it [Traveler IV] carried was GoPros and the required avionic systems to be able to tell where it was,” Tewksbury said. “We’re working towards expanding that payload capacity and flying even higher to be able to carry small, suborbital satellites that can provide experiments and whatnot.”
As the USCRPL has learned through its countless experiments and failures, achieving the end goal isn’t the only benefit of taking on such a mission.
While the awards and recognition of the past few months have skyrocketed the USCRPL to the forefront of the collegiate aerospace engineering scene, the students aren’t in it for the fame.
“We’re hoping to inspire more kids to pursue rocket science,” Tewksbury said. “We’re not doing it for the awards. We’re doing it for the passion of engineering and pushing the limits of what students can do.”