Community college rocket team ready for NASA contest

Launch pad
With minutes to spare, the team of students from Inver Hills Community College set their rocket on the launch pad for a test launch on Sunday, March 13, 2011, at a sod farm near Nowthen, Minn. The team will compete in the 2011 NASA USLI (University Student Launch Initiative) competition against colleges such as MIT and Purdue University. The official launch takes place on April 16 in Alabama.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Inver Hills Community College isn't known for rocket science, but a team of 15 students from the school in Inver Grove Heights is ready to put their rocket up against engineering powerhouses like MIT and Purdue University.

The Inver Thrills University Student Launch Initiative (USLI) team will be the only school from Minnesota and one of only two community colleges to participate in NASA's rocket competition for colleges and universities being held in Alabama next week.

See a full slideshow of the team's test launch here.

The team from Inver Hills has been meeting in the basement of team leader Caleb Boe's parents' house in Cottage Grove, where you won't find the wind tunnel or advanced rocketry software some of their competitors can access.

"We're kind of proving that you don't necessarily need all the high-tech, the fancy stuff to build a rocket and be successful at this," Boe said.

No community college team has ever won the top prize in the NASA competition's 10-year history. But the Inver Hills team certainly isn't clueless when it comes to rockets.

Prepping for launch
Joshua Bowe, 26, of Owatonna, and Bryan Sullivan, 18, of Apple Valley, prepare the electronic sled and payload bay for the rocket test launch on Sunday, March 13, 2011 in Nowthen, Minn.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Boe, a high school senior taking classes at Inver Hills, started building rockets at age 11 after watching a kid-builds-rocket movie called "October Sky." He read a handbook on rocket building and bought his first kit with his birthday money.

"After that it just kind of took off," he said.

Boe is one of several team members who will graduate from high school this spring and go on to attend a four-year school. Other team members have returned to school after years of work experience.

"That adds a different dynamic to it," said Jonathan Jones, 35, an Inver Hills student who joined the team to help proofread documents to be sent to NASA.

Two team members are international students from Vietnam. One, like Boe, has always been interested in rockets and space exploration after watching movies as a kid.

"It's my dream thing I want to do in the future," said Nguyen Nguyen, 25. "I already put it on my resume. It doesn't matter what I have to do to get there."

Explosives
Team members from the Inver Thrills USLI (University Student Launch Initiative) Team prepare their rocket for a test launch on Sunday, March 13, 2011 in Nowthen, Minn.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

The team has been working on their rocket project since last fall. USLI competition rockets must reach close to a mile in altitude and carry some kind of science experiment, also known as a payload.

The official launch takes place April 16 near Huntsville, Ala., where students will be judged on everything from rocket design and appearance to payload design. The top winners will be announced in May.

The team from Inver Hills has built a 10-foot rocket that will carry sensors that will measure things like temperature, barometric pressure, altitude and solar radiance. Their payload will also carry a video camera designed to stay upright and film the horizon on the way up and when it comes down with parachutes.

"NASA doesn't just want us to collect the data, it wants us to study it," said Bryan Sullivan, assistant team leader who's been in charge of the science experiment.

On a cold, Sunday afternoon in March, the team test-launched their rocket on a sod farm near Nowthen, located north of the Twin Cities.

Test launch
The 10-foot rocket reached just over 4,800 feet before parachutes brought it down from the sky.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Friends and family members came to watch, as they won't be travelling to Alabama with the team for the official launch.

"Think of the resources those kids have at Purdue, versus the kids at Inver Hills Community College," said Jan Fennern, whose son Colin is on the team. "They've really hustled around, and I'm so proud of them."

The team's launch was delayed by clouds, and then by logistical problems. About a half hour before air traffic control's 6 p.m. deadline, some of the team members were still trying to get bunched up wires from the sensors for the science experiment to fit into the payload section of the rocket.

"We've been short on time with a number of things. Parts arrived late, and that's kind of set us behind. It's just been really stressful the last couple days," Boe said at the time.

Finally, they got everything in place and carried the rocket out to the launch pad. With five minutes to spare, Boe did the countdown and hit the button.

Collecting parachute and rocket
After a successful test launch, team leader Caleb Boe, 18, of Cottage Grove, and teammates collect the parachute and rocket on Sunday, March 13, 2011, in Nowthen, Minn.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

The rocket shot up into the air and took several minutes to come back down by parachute. After retrieving the rocket, Boe checked an altimeter: The rocket had reached 4,815 feet. By adding just a little more power for the official launch, the team is confident it will reach a mile.

NASA will have a video stream of the launch here on April 16.

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