Engineering senior Kip Daugirdas went to the Black Rock Desert outside of Reno, Nev. at the end of September in hopes of setting a world record. He wanted to watch the Maverick III, a rocket that he helped design and build, soar 70,000 feet.

Jessica Boullion
Members of the Michigan Aeronautical Science Association set up the Maverick III rocket in the Black Rock Desert outside Reno, Nev. (Courtesy of Matthew McKeown)

Instead, he watched the rocket ascend a few thousand feet and spin end-over-end before falling back to earth – twice.

Daugirdas was one of a handful of engineers from the University’s Michigan Aeronautical Science Association who attempted to set a new record by launching the rocket 70,000 feet in the air – higher than airplanes fly – and more than twice the current record for a rocket of its class.

To reach that height, the rocket would have had to travel at about 3.5 times the speed of sound. That’s about half a mile a second.

At the end of last month, the team spent about a week in the desert setting up the launch pad, preparing the rocket and waiting for good weather conditions before the launch.

The team launched the rocket twice.

On the first attempt, the motor ignited but fizzled on the launch pad for a few seconds before lifting off. The rocket briefly flew straight up into the air but then began to arch and fly sideways, said Daugirdas, the project’s coordinator and lead designer.

The team members tried to correct the problems with a replacement motor and had a more successful flight the next day, but they did not come anywhere close to the record, said Matthew McKeown, a College of Engineering graduate student who worked on the project.

Daugirdas said he was disappointed that the attempt failed but was prepared for the outcome.

“We needed a lot of luck for this to work,” he said.

Daugirdas designed and built most of Maverick III over the summer during an internship at Packer Engineering, a consulting firm. The firm sponsored the project in conjunction with the College of Engineering.

Prior to the Nevada attempt, Maverick III had never been launched, although one section of the rocket had flown independently. The team relied on calculations and simulators to estimate the rocket’s flight.

“You can write all the numbers you want, but until you actually put something together and fly it, there is no telling what is going to happen,” Daugirdas said before the team left for the launch site.

The team built Maverick III in three separate sections, with each one made of a composite of carbon fiber and fiberglass. The sections are designed to drop away as the rocket climbs until only the top section reaches the top height.

McKeown estimated that the rocket’s motor produced about 800 pounds of thrust. Because the rocket was so powerful, McKeown had to undergo a background check by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives before purchasing the fuel. The group also had to obtain written approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and they also had to get clearance from the FAA just before launch.

Most of the rocket was not badly damaged during the flights, so the team might try to launch it in again the future, Daugirdas said.

“I was just thrilled to be out in Nevada and have the rocket on a launch pad,” Daugirdas said. “I had put a lot of my time and money into trying to get this rocket built and ready to fly. There hasn’t been a day in the last five months when I haven’t thought or worked on this project.”

The team also mounted a 7.2 megapixel camera in the top section of the rocket with the help of Ben Hutcheson, a student at Iowa State University. The camera was programmed to take about 800 pictures, about one photo every couple of hundredths of a second. But most of the photos came out blurry because the camera didn’t focus properly. If the rocket had broken the altitude record, the camera could have captured an image close to what the Earth would look like from space.

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