Around 7:30 a.m. on April 21, Traveler IV launched into space from Spaceport America, in New Mexico, as 100 lab members, alumni, and supporters looked on from a distance. One hundred and seventy-three seconds later the loudspeaker announced, “The drogues [parachutes] have fired.” Students cheered, high-fived and hugged.
After months of careful, methodical calculations, USC’s undergraduate Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (RPL) officially announced today their rocket Traveler IV crossed the Karman Line into space with 90% certainty, marking a breakthrough in student-led, low-budget, high-performance rocketry.
The student-designed-and-built rocket flew to a height of 64 miles with a top speed of 3,386 miles per hour, according to careful, methodical calculations. Eighty undergraduate students were involved with the launch, design, and construction of the rocket.
"Right after the launch I saw the damage to the rocket and did not think it made it and conceded we probably didn't make it," said Neil Tewksbury, operations lead for RPL and rising senior mechanical engineering student. "As we did our analysis we thought oh this could be true."
Former Lead Propulsion Engineer and USC alumnus, Adam Aitoumeziane, helped design the current model which went to space two years ago.
“We arrived at the design in April of 2017 and to see two years later the design fully proven is so satisfying and tremendously rewarding,” Aitoumeziane said.
The previous Traveler III rocket looked like it had reached space, but there was no way of proving it because no data was recorded due to a communication breakdown. For this launch, they had the numbers to back it up.
“It’s interesting to compress 4.5 years of the central focus of my time at USC with a six digit number and an error bar,” Aitoumeziane said. He currently works at Exquandrum, an aerospace and defense contractor. “I’m proud of everyone who has worked on this vehicle and all of the people in the lab leadership.”
RPL has realized its 2004 founding mission — “putting a scratch-built rocket into space” — with 15 years of development and the help of hundreds of students. USC beat out other student rocket laboratories at Princeton, MIT, Boston University, UCSD, Berkeley, Portland State, Delft University in the Netherlands and TU Vien in Austria in this miniature space race.
“We are proud of the tradition and of the indomitable spirit of innovation and perseverance of the RPL teams over the years,” said USC Viterbi School of Engineering Dean Yannis Yortsos. “This remarkable moment is a testament to their ingenuity and dedication.”
This student-led breakthrough paves the way for science and engineering outside the undergraduate level, said Avionics Lead Conor Hayes, who will graduate from USC in December with a Bachelor of Science in computer engineering and computer science.
“RPL and the other teams are doing stuff that’s genuinely never been tried before, on budgets that previously would have been called ‘impossibly low’ for any space-qualified organization,” Hayes said.
Wanda M. Austin, Interim President of USC and former President and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, said RPL’s achievement is a reflection of the USC student body’s successes.
“USC students consistently aim high, and with this project we see that in a literal sense,” Austin said in an emailed statement. “This launch is a wonderful example of the innovative spirit and entrepreneurial mindset of our exceptionally talented students.”