Temple engineering majors make space for future students in NASA

The first students in Temple’s history entered NASA’s prestigious Student Launch competition in which they had to build a functioning rocket.

Most people will never know what it’s like to work for NASA.

But Four Temple students now know what it’s like collaborating with the space exploration agency.

Senior mechanical engineering majors Daniel Rooney, Elaine Vallejos, Spencer Villarreal and Daniel Walsh recently designed and built their own rocket for NASA’s Student Launch project.

The eight-month, research-based competition involves launching a rocket and doing all the work that goes into it like writing a research proposal and designing and building the rocket. Students from United States universities, high schools and middle schools can participate. The four College of Engineering students are the first from Temple to enter the competitive program.

“You see NASA as really high up, like it’s something kind of untouchable,” Rooney said. “But it’s really just stuff that we learned, and it’s applying that information.”

NASA is known for its space exploration and research, most of which is made possible by using rockets.

To enter, the team submitted a proposal last September, which a panel of NASA scientists then accepted a month later. They also created Facebook and Instagram accounts to show their progress and engage in community outreach like a resume workshop for other engineering students. The team also met with an engineer from Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, and fundraised for supplies and travel costs.

“The process that we went through is the same process that [NASA scientists] go through for actual projects,” Walsh said. “I feel like that was a good way to go about learning how to take a project and go through with it.”

Mechanical engineering professors Alex Pillapakkam and Dustyn Roberts guided the team’s project. Bruce Canino, a local engineer who specializes in rocketry, served as a mentor to the members.

Canino is a member of South Jersey Area Rocket Society, a group that performs monthly rocket launches at locations like South Jersey Technology Park. Canino assembled the team’s rocket motor.

Vallejos said the rocket was required to carry a specific cargo, called a payload, and needed to be reusable, meaning it could be launched twice in one day without repairs.

The team couldn’t raise enough funds in time to compete, so the design and payload weren’t finished. Having a team of four was limiting, Rooney said, as they were competing against many university teams with more than 12 members.

“A lot of these teams have a lot more people and they do a lot more physically than just the four of us could,” Rooney said. “We’ve been trying to talk to as many underclassmen, just trying to get interest.”

But they hope this becomes a legacy project or the basis for a Temple club, Rooney said.

“I wish we could have been ready in time to get down there, but I always wanted to do something with aerodynamics,” Villarreal said. “The process of the proposal is going to get us ready for whatever we do in the future, so it’s been a great experience.”

The official NASA launch will take place on April 6 in Toney, Alabama. Teams are judged based on how close their rocket comes to the team’s predicted launch altitude. The Temple team will still have the opportunity to launch the rocket with Canino. South Jersey Area Rocketry Society will hold its next launch on April 21, and the Temple team will use the opportunity to launch their rocket.

The group isn’t too disappointed about pulling out of the competition or missing the official launch.

“I liked being able to reach out to the community,” Vallejos said. “Being able to compete, that would have been cool, but I’m just excited for the launch. I just want to see this thing go.”

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