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updated: 5/28/2013 8:44 AM

Harper College team scores big at NASA rocket competition

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  • A team of five students from Harper College and three from DeVry recently placed fourth in the NASA University Student Launch Initiative.  Team Leader Scott Mueller, left, and Chris Wessel work on their rocket prior to the launch. Mueller, of Elk Grove Village, is a robotics expert and Wessel has plans to be a mechanical engineer.

      A team of five students from Harper College and three from DeVry recently placed fourth in the NASA University Student Launch Initiative. Team Leader Scott Mueller, left, and Chris Wessel work on their rocket prior to the launch. Mueller, of Elk Grove Village, is a robotics expert and Wessel has plans to be a mechanical engineer.
    Courtesy of Harper College

  • Scott Mueller, left, and Chris Wessel prepare the rocket for launch.

      Scott Mueller, left, and Chris Wessel prepare the rocket for launch.
    Courtesy of Harper College

 
By Mackenzie Dye
mdye@dailyherald.com

Along with being a place to launch an education, Harper College is also where students can learn to launch rockets.

A team of five Harper and three DeVry students placed fourth in this spring's NASA University Student Launch Initiative, where 36 colleges and universities designed and built reusable rockets that could fly a mile into space and safely return their payloads to Earth.

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Coming in fourth meant Harper beat teams from Northwestern University and MIT.

"It's unbelievable, considering a month before the actual launch, the rocket we had crashed," said team member Eric Meyers, who will enroll at University of Illinois in Urbana next year to study mechanical engineering.

After the disastrous test run, the team scrambled to rebuild and in late April members went to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., for the "launch fest" and to launch the rocket they spent the school year designing from scratch.

The competition required each rocket to carry one payload, but the Harper/DeVry rocket had three: a nose cone; a science mission directorate and a walking robot.

"Our team leader is very experienced in robots," said Meyers. "Instead of just one rocket, we decided to do three really complex payloads as well."

The four-legged robot was programmed to eject from inside the rocket and navigate its way back to the launch stand on its own, simulating putting an unmanned ground vehicle on Mars.

Difficulties arose a month before the competition, when the rocket crashed during a test run.

"We had to rush around and get it to Huntsville," Meyers said. But the rushing paid off, and team members were able to show NASA how hard they worked.

According to a NASA news release, judges evaluated the rockets based on technical design reviews, the results from the rocket's flight including altitude (rockets were supposed to get as close to a mile without going over) and the operation of the payload.

Judges also evaluated each team's written report and its outreach activities -- teams had to make a website documenting their experience and their enthusiasm for rocketry.

The overall winner was Vanderbilt University of Nashville, which won the $5,000 top prize provided by ATK Aerospace Group of Promontory, Utah. The University of Louisville and Tarleton State University (Stephenville, Texas) came in second and third, respectively.

To place in the top five against such competition is "unimaginable," said Meyers.

"To be mentioned in the same sentence as such prestigious schools is really awesome for a community college," he said.

The team consisted of Team Leader Scott Mueller, Craig Babiarz, Chris Wessel, Eric Meyers and Kevin Compton, all from Harper College; and Tony Stram, Hammad Niazi and Jonathan Arciaga from DeVry.

Each member brought his own distinct background and skills to the project -- the DeVry students, for example, were the electronics experts.

The Harper team got funding from Harper College, United Airlines, DeVry University, Northrop Grumman, the Harper College Education Foundation and NASA.

The team was notified of its acceptance to the program last fall. Physics Professor Maggie Geppert, the team's faculty sponsor, said the students spent a "staggering" amount of time on the project, and their early research qualified them for $3,000 in NASA funding and the chance to launch three cargo payloads at the April competition.

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