The moon rocket makers

Rocketry champs honor the Apollo mission with model of the Saturn V

Brayden Dodge, left, and Andrew Heath work on refining the details on one of their Saturn V replicas, ahead of the National Rocketry Challenge in Virginia and the International Rocketry Challenge in Paris.

If you're going to send people to the moon, send 'em in style. 

Fifty years ago, NASA used the Saturn V rocket, a three-stage, liquid-propelled behemoth, some 36 stories tall, to break free of Earth's gravity and bring astronauts to the moon. Its towering presence, in its black-and-white livery, became an icon of mankind's great leap. It was inspiring then and now.

Three college students are building replicas of the Saturn V rocket, with support from Raytheon. Pending approval, one of their 1/70th scale moon rockets will launch at the Team America Rocketry Challenge National Finals Fly Off, May 18 in The Plains, Virginia. 

“I saw a video of a new model rocket that uses ‘thrust vectoring’ like real rockets, and immediately became very interested,” said Andrew Heath, 21, a senior at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and captain of the team that won the International Rocketry Challenge at the Paris Air Show in 2015. “It got me thinking that since the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing is in July, that it would cool to do a replica. I reached out to the Aerospace Industries Association about it, and they loved the idea, and it kind of just snowballed from there.”

The challenge is run by the AIA and the National Association of Rocketry, and sponsored by Raytheon. For the past 14 years, Raytheon has sent the winners of the U.S. nationals to the International Rocketry Challenge, which alternates each year between the air shows in Farnborough, U.K., and Paris. Those biannual events are held in alternating years. This year, the winners go to Paris.

Heath enlisted the help of two former TARC alumni – Brayden Dodge, a 19-year-old sophomore at Auburn University and captain of last year’s national and international rocketry challenge winning teams, and Grace Basler, an 18-year-old freshman at Missouri University of Science and Technology who was a member of the 2017 national and international rocketry winning teams.

“It’s been a lot of hard work, and we have a lot more to do,” Dodge said. “But it’s an amazing opportunity. I can’t wait to launch this thing and get to see it fly.”

Heath describes the trio’s model rocket as “museum quality.” It stands at over 62 inches tall and 5.6 inches in diameter.

“Most model rockets have fins and launch quickly; real space launch vehicles don't,” Heath said. “With thrust vectoring, our rocket will slowly ascend and build speed, instead of leaving your sight in seconds. Real space-orbiting rockets use thrust vectoring.”

Thrust vectoring uses an on-board computer to control the direction of a rocket’s engines during flight, stabilizing the vehicle and allowing it to change trajectory. The replica also has Bluetooth to connect the on-board computer to a smartphone app, which can help the rocketeers configure thrust vector control sensitivity, parachute deployment altitudes, the abort system, ground testing and rocket tuning, among other functions.

The model's control system is even protected against cyberattacks, a consideration that was not a factor in 1969. With the prevalence of connected devices and bad actors in today's world, though, the TARC alumni got some help hardening the system.

As luck would have it, Heath is an intern for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. 

“We’ve gotten some very helpful advice on how to conduct a risk assessment and how to harden the rocket,” Heath said. “After we’ve completed that, they’re going to see if we’ve done our due diligence.”

The alumni are awaiting approval from National Association of Rocketry to launch their replica at the TARC Nationals, May 18. On May 17, they will accompany the 70 competing teams, composed of middle school and high school students, to a Washington, D.C., event called Rockets on the Hill, where they will get to meet senators and representatives.

At this year’s nationals, students must design, build and fly a rocket carrying three raw eggs in a capsule to an altitude of 856 feet, then return it to ground with the eggs intact, all within a range of 43-46 seconds. A broken egg means automatic disqualification. Raytheon will send the best-performing team to the Paris Air Show in June to represent the U.S. at the International Rocketry Challenge, where it will compete against teams from France, Japan and the United Kingdom.

The alumni hope their Saturn V launch will help inspire more students to get into rocketry. Joining a rocketry team in middle school and high school can help develop skills and an interest in a science, technology, engineering and math.

“I'm really excited about this project,” Basler said. “It’s never been done before, never been seen before, it’s a first. It will become cool. I think it will motivate a lot of kids to get into rocketry.”

Heath has mentored one or more high school teams for the past four years, sending at least one team to nationals each year.

“One of my teams got a sneak peek at the Saturn V, and it turned their world upside down,” Heath said. “It really made sense to them, and it clicked.”

Note: Raytheon congratulates Madison West from Wisconsin, winners of the Team America Rocketry Challenge National Finals Fly Off! Nearly 5,000 students from across the country compete in the challenge every year. The Madison West rocket soared to victory, safely carrying three eggs into flight and delivering them safely to the Earth – honoring the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, theme of this year’s contest. Next: The winning team will travel to the Paris Air Show to represent the U.S. in the  International Rocketry Challenge, June 20-21, 2019.


Published On: 05/09/2019
Last Updated: 05/18/2019