Education of Rocket Propulsion Systems
When we look up at the stars at night, we wonder what might be out there to discover, what new mysteries await us. The space race opened the door to this vast void. The race captivated the world with the astounding Apollo missions. Apollo showed the world that humanity has the potential to go far. Since the moon landings, the world on a whole became less interested in the wonders out there. In recent years however, we have seen massive growth and interest in space and the technology to get there. It is no small task to design and launch rockets that can escape the bonds of earth; the task is even harder with the prospect of travelling to different worlds. The issues truly arise from how we train engineers and scientists of the future to design and operate these systems. In many regards, rockets are very simple in nature, but the execution is extremely complex.
There is only so much that anyone can learn in a classroom. The true learning occurs when we take the ideas and concepts from the classroom and turn them into reality. This realization and practical hands- on learning is extremely difficult to perform, due to the complex and hazardous nature of rocketry. The final steps to create a design for educational sake are usually out of the question. There are several universities across the United States and the world that have capabilities to teach and research rocket systems, however most are limited in scale. Larger organizations such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and NASA have the facilities to handle large to very large engine designs; however, groups are less focused on training new comers to the field. These organizations generally wish to expand capabilities of systems. New Mexico Tech is growing to allow students the ability to gain the valuable knowledge that comes from hands on application of design techniques.
New Mexico Tech is a very small university, but has a massive impact in the world of research and development. The school has programs unlike any in the world. New Mexico Tech has a very different culture than most universities. Almost every student in upper level courses is engaged in high-level research and development. The university also hosts a unique design clinic course for undergraduate Mechanical Engineering majors. This clinic spans two full years and features practical, real world problems from various organizations. Many companies in industry have realized that graduates of New Mexico Tech are very valuable because they already have experiences working on engineering projects and applying knowledge of the classroom to problems at hand. For years, the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC), a research division of the university, has been at the forefront of explosives research. EMRTC has been featured on the television show MythBusters several times because of the unique facilities at the school’s disposal. Given this experience with hazardous projects, New Mexico Tech already has many of the hurdles crossed to expand education in the world of rocket design.
At its core, a rocket test stand is a system used to hold down a rocket engine to test fire and gather valuable data performance data. Using these stands, engines can be optimized and proven safe for application in rockets. In the automotive industry, similar stands for car engines are used for the same purpose. Designers of vehicles must know how the engines will perform before the actual vehicle can take shape. An issue with most existing test stands is that they are specially built for a particular type of rocket or require that the engine be designed or modified to fit the mounting of the stand. This limits the capabilities of such stands greatly by forcing designers to limit the potential of novel designs to work with existing structures. The modification of designs also uses up ever valuable time. These stands also are not very friendly to educational realization of concepts. They are built very bare bones for a particular test being performed, focusing on the test data rather than showing that the math and concepts behind the design.
Mechanical Engineering students at New Mexico Tech are currently building a rocket test stand for education and research. The team has created a test stand design to allow for almost any size and type of rocket to be tested. Maximum sizing has been set at 500 pounds of generated thrust from any engine, due to safety limitations. For teaching of concepts, a massive rocket is unnecessary because rocket engines readily scale to much larger systems. The high adaptability is achieved by using a horizontal design with a clamping system. Horizontal design refers to how the rocket is mounted horizontal to the ground, this way the exhaust plume is directed in a safe direction. This horizontal design also allows for greater ease in studying the exhaust plume using high-speed photography. The clamps are large enough to handle larger engines; however, they can also handle very small engines. These clamps slide along a rail so that if in the future new or specialized clamping designs are needed for testing or teaching purposes the stand does not need to be completely rebuilt. These rails also allow for easy replacement of the clamps should any engine catastrophically fail. The hope is that such events never occur; however, failure can always happen in experimental set-ups and such a failure would make for an excellent teaching experience.
By expanding the abilities to educate future engineers in rocket systems, New Mexico Tech is helping spur and support the new interest in space systems in the world. By allowing undergraduate students the chance to design and build such a system, the learning process is much more involved. The students are far better prepared for large-scale, real-world engineering projects. This helps not only teach concepts better to the students, but also allows for the practice experience that is needed for the job hunt that awaits any graduate. By allowing these experiences to occur in the college learning environment, companies and organizations do not need to spend extra time and resources training engineers. These organizations can focus their efforts to taking humankind to new places, allow for great achievements, and new technological innovations.