Space or Nothing: The USC Rocket Propulsion Lab

Alex-2016 Alex, Design Teams 0 Comments

Space or nothing: this is the slogan of the USC Rocket Propulsion Lab.

I joined the Rocket Lab in the fall of 2013, the beginning of my sophomore year. Over the past two years, I have learned everything rocket-related, from research to design to hands-on builds. At first, my contributions to the lab fell into this third category: hands-on builds. I would spend entire nights in the lab completing a carbon-fiber lay-up: molding the rocket’s motorcase with carbon fiber. The next day, I would learn to build carbon fiber fins from a fiber glass mold. From the lab’s senior members, I would absorb information about propellant characteristics, rocket aerodynamics, and the merits of pressure testing the motorcase with water (hydrotesting).

Carter and Megan lay up a motorcase.

Carter and Megan lay up a motorcase.

As I started my junior year, I had the opportunity to specialize my contributions to the lab. I joined the parachute recovery team and co-led a group of four rocket lab members. I was charged with ensuring our newest space shot, DCX, would safely return to Earth after charging past the Von Karman line. With my team, I tested a dual-deployment system that would first release a drogue parachute before opening the main parachute at 10,000 feet. Carbon-dioxide gas would be used to shear off the rocket’s nosecone. As the leader of the parachute team, I played a crucial role in rocket design. I worked with Carter Allen, our avionics lead, to ensure that the avionics system would properly trigger the release of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, I had to provide Brandon Edelson, rocket lab’s chief engineer, with an estimate of the volume the parachute recovery system would require in front of the forward motor bulkhead.

After launching DCX in late October 2014, the parachute recovery team returned to the drawing board. Even though DCX failed due to thermal stress, the parachute team realized we could make our system better. The dual deployment system had one fatal flaw; a pin, launched by a black powdered charge, was expected to puncture the carbon dioxide canister to release the gas. However, this puncture system had never been tested in a vacuum (Don’t forget, space is a vacuum!). To avoid this flaw, the parachute recovery team conducted research to develop an alternate system: a gas-generator. Similar to your car’s airbag, a solid chemical would be placed below the nosecone. When ignited by an electronic match, the chemical would burn at a low temperature, releasing a large magnitude of gas in the process. The gas would then shear the nosecone, without the need for a puncturing pin excited by black powder. Currently, our research is looking for low cost, but non-toxic, chemicals to implement in the system.

Jason Silverman works on a rocket nozzle.

Jason Silverman works on a rocket nozzle.

But what makes USC’s Rocket Propulsion Lab my favorite Viterbi organization? The people. My fellow rocket lab members are intelligent, fun, and most importantly driven. Space or nothing is not just a slogan. Space or nothing is a mantra we all live by. The engineers of the Rocket Lab will not rest until a USC-built carbon fiber rocket soars past the Von Karman Line. From freshmen to seniors, students can be found in the lab at all hours of the day and night, studying, working on the lathe, or completing carbon-fiber lay-ups. Everyone is committed toward the same goal: making history as the first undergraduate engineering group to reach space. I am happy to be a small part of an amazing legacy of engineers.

For more information on USC’s Rocket Propulsion Lab, visit our website at:

And always remember: flight on!




Astronautical Engineering, Class of 2016, Learn more on his profile here!

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