USC Rocket Lab: Our Journey to Space

Alex-2016 Design Teams, Viterbi Orgs

On September 21st, 2013, at approximately 6:07 PDT, USC Rocket Propulsion Lab was supposed to become the first ever undergraduate group to reach space. Traveler, our famed rocket, sat armed on the launch pad, pointed to the overcast, northern-Nevada sky at an 85 degree angle. As the rocket’s engines ignited, I looked happily to the sky from a few miles away, prepared to watch history be made. But, after only 4.5 seconds of flight, Traveler transformed into a fiery wreck, and Rocket Lab’s space shot, and shot at the record books, failed.

After making the twelve-hour drive from Blackrock, Nevada, back to Los Angeles, the lab determined what caused Traveler’s untimely end. Due to the extreme gravity forces, solid propellant delaminated from Traveler’s casting tubes, causing Traveler’s motor to became over-pressurized. The motor then failed, leading to an explosion that knocked off Traveler’s nozzle and aborted the space mission at 5000 feet. Luckily, nearly the entire vehicle was recovered and brought back to Los Angeles.

Aside from last weekend’s launch, Traveler has a much longer story, most of which I was not a part of. Traveler’s goal, to reach space by crossing the Von Karman line at 100 km above the Earth, has been the goal of the Rocket Lab since 2003, when a freshman named Ian Whittinghill started the lab wi