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Chasing the Moon

Friday, November 15, 2019

As NASA prepares to put humans on the moon again in 2024, it is looking ahead to the next generation of scientists and engineers who will take over preparations for manned exploration of Mars and beyond.

A team of UTA aerospace engineering students has been selected to compete in the NASA Student Launch competition at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., in April, joining 46 other college and university teams, plus 18 teams in the middle and high school division, who will design, build, test and fly a payload and high-powered rocket to between 4,000 and 5,500 feet in altitude.

UTA's AeroMavs rocket team members pose with three previous competition rocketsKathryn Lehocky, a junior mechanical engineering major, is the rocket chief and is responsible for leading a team of 30 students, including three other leads. Kathryn led her high school team to the Student Launch competition and is excited to be able to compete again.

“It’s really cool that we get work with NASA engineers and learn from them. The program is an unfunded government contract, and it’s great to have the experience of writing a Request for Proposal and working with a government agency before entering the workforce,” Lehocky said.

“The project is run following actual NASA engineering design processes, including four design reviews. We have to put ourselves out there and present our ideas, and we have to be prepared to answer questions from those engineers, learn from their comments, and apply them to our project.”

In addition to designing and building a rocket that will reach the required altitude, teams must use an unmanned vehicle to collect 10 milliliters of simulated lunar ice from one of several stations around the launch site, then safely transport the sample at least 10 feet away from the station. Teams also predict their rocket’s altitude in their preliminary design review submission to NASA in November. In 2019, the winner of the prediction contest was within 12 feet of the rocket’s actual altitude. Teams can also earn points in categories such as safety and design.

Lehocky and her teammates are basing their rocket design on a previous year’s model, and the unmanned vehicle team has already begun testing prototypes. The specifics of the simulated lunar ice have purposely been vague, because NASA engineers have to make educated guesses about real samples on Mars.

“We’ve seen a photo of what the samples will look like, but we don’t know their properties or anything, so we have to do our best to design something that will be able to handle a sample that is heavy, or fragile, or oddly shaped,” Lehocky said.

UTA is one of only four, four-year universities in Texas with an aerospace engineering program, and the only one in North Texas. Among the universities it will compete against in the Student Launch competition are Georgia Tech, Purdue University, UT Austin and the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, all of which are among the 10 best in the United States according to the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings.

“This competition is a high-visibility opportunity, and it’s quite an accomplishment to get accepted,” said Bernd Chudoba, an aerospace engineering professor and the team’s advisor.

“It’s a big deal because of the current national focus on defensible space and the need for engineers with the knowledge to design, build and successfully fly rockets and hypersonic vehicles. Through this experience, our students will gain confidence and applicable skills to join the workforce and make meaningful contributions in this area.”

The UTA team’s participation in the NASA Student Launch competition underscores the College of Engineering’s commitment to supporting students in endeavors that will prepare them to succeed in their future careers by applying what they’re learning in the classroom to tangible activities, said Peter Crouch, dean of the College of Engineering.

“Our top job is to provide students with the education, encouragement and support that they need to confidently enter the workforce and thrive,” Crouch said. “This is an excellent opportunity for our students to learn about real-world processes and compete against some of the best programs in the United States, and I have no doubt that our students will set themselves apart.”