SoHi, Homer grads await liftoff

UAF engineering students prep rocket for launch
This rendering shows the rocket, named Heavens Bound Halibut, that UAF students are sending up in the air this spring.

Four years ago, they were freshmen floating in zero gravity. Now, they’re leading the charge to launch an 11-foot, 45-pound rocket a mile into the sky.


University of Alaska Fairbanks students Andrew Paxson, from Soldotna, and Wyatt Rehder, from Homer, are gearing up for the NASA University Student Launch Initiative competition, which is designed to challenge university-level students to design, build and launch a reusable rocket with a scientific or engineering payload to one mile above ground level. 

“It’s a little bit of science and part of how can you integrate something that makes sure you can fly, basically what NASA does,” Paxson, 22, said.

As freshmen, they were involved with NASA’s Microgravity University program, so they are well-versed in NASA’s procedures.

“One of the biggest parts of the project is we actually do a full design review, this is the exact same thing NASA does when they make a space shuttle or satellite or anything like that,” Rehder, also 22, said.

The event will take place in April in Toney, Ala., which is right outside of Huntsville. Paxson and Rehder’s 12-person team will be one of 42 participating in the event from universities around the country.

Rehder said the idea to build a rocket came about a year ago when he and Paxson decided it was something they wanted to do. 

“Me and Andrew got together and we wanted to build a rocket, so we started looking around to see what competitions there were,” Rehder said. The men were pointed in the direction of this competition by their Space Grant director, and work began in the summer.

“We started building up ideas of what we wanted to do and read through the rules,” Rehder said. “And then by the time we got back to school we made our proposal and sent it to NASA and they accepted it.”

The rules of the competition call for the rocket to reach an altitude of exactly one mile. Teams will be deducted two points for every foot they go over a mile and one point for every foot under, Rehder said. To make sure their rocket reaches exactly one mile, an active control system was installed to control the air brake system.

“It deploys three air brakes using an electric linear actuator,” Rehder said. “And we’ll be deploying this in order to perfectly tailor our altitude to one mile.”

The linear actuator is what creates motion in a straight line, which allows the rocket to accelerate upwards. Paxson said the team is using a solid rocket motor, which is like a firecracker.

“You light it, it goes off and does its thing,” Paxson explained. “So it’s got a set amount of energy.”

The rocket is 11 feet long, about 45 pounds, and has a peak horsepower of 550, Rehder said. 

“It’s cruisin’ — it should reach a maximum speed of about 450-500 mph — in 2.4 seconds,” he said.

Since there are no motors that are perfectly set for the 5,280 feet the rocket must travel, Paxson said, the team must determine the right balance.

“There’s no magic combination,” he said.

The air brakes will let the team trim some of the energy the motor will produce in order to reach the required altitude.

“We need to be able to tail off that little bit of extra force that motor has,” Paxson said.

The team, dubbed the Heavens Bound Halibut, pays homage to their roots in the Peninsula.

“It’s a noble fish, we thought it’d be a very classy mascot,” Paxson said.

As team leaders, the two seniors assume a role they held in high regard when they started out as freshmen working with micro gravity.

“We were just freshmen just working and helping the team leaders out to get everything working,” Rehder said. “Now we’ve kinda gone full circle, now we’re the team leaders directing other people.”

They divided the workload in half, to suit each other’s skills. Rehder handles the electrical components and Paxson is in charge of the mechanical piece to build the rocket. Paxson said now that they’re at the helm, they have a new-found respect for their former team lead, Tess Caswell, who also hailed from the Peninsula.

“I have a lot more respect for her now to not only be able to keep people together but doing the logistics is a nightmare trying to get motors up here,” he said.

Rehder said the rocket will reach a mile in about eight seconds.

“Eight months of hard work for eight seconds of pure glory,” Paxson said.


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