One giant leap for aerospace club

The task presented to Northeastern’s student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics is one that NASA engineers have been working to resolve for some time: how to return a payload to Earth using an autonomous robot and rocket.

Students in the aerospace club are spending most of this academic year determined to help NASA find a solution to that challenge.

Earlier this fall, the club was accepted to NASA’s prestigious Student Launch initiative, a research-based, competitive, and experiential exploration project that provides relevant and cost-effective research and development to support the Space Launch System. Northeastern is one of 23 collegiate teams competing for a $10,000 grand prize.

“It’s very competitive,” said club president Andrew Buggee, E’16. “It’s the only rocket competition that you have to be selected for. It’s an unbelievable opportunity.”

The charge of this year’s competition is to design and build a rocket with a robotic competent that can grab a payload and load it into the rocket. The rocket then must be able to prepare itself for lift off, launch into the air, and then jettison the payload at a specific altitude. The teams launch their experiments on high-power rockets and share their research results, which will be used by NASA in future projects.

“NASA is trying to come up with ideas for how to return things to Earth, specifically from Mars,” Buggee explained. “That’s no small task.”

Earlier this year, the club received a Provost’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors Award, which significantly strengthened the students’ application to enter the NASA competition. The awards offer financial and academic support to Northeastern students seeking to conduct original projects of their own design; the aerospace club is using its award to build more sophisticated rockets and enter more competitions.

The NASA competition will take plae April 7 at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Birmingham, Alabama. Ahead of the competition, the club will hold regularly check-ins with NASA engineers to discuss its design plans and progress.

Not only does the competition involve designing and building a rocket, participating student groups must also do community outreach with area school children. Buggee said the club plans to partner with Northeastern’s Center for STEM Education, which hosts middle school field trips, and visit Boston-area schools.

Northeastern’s AIAA chapter has experienced great success in its inaugural year, including winning its first competition in early April. Students also successfully launched a weather balloon equipped with a GoPro and an iPhone and monitored the balloon’s journey from Cobleskill, New York, to Bedford, New Hampshire.

Andrew Gouldstone, the club’s faculty advisor and an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, attributes the club’s early success to the students’ drive and passion.

“These are students with a real passion for what they do,” he said. “They wanted to start a club that can actually achieve things and they are tremendously talented. I have nothing but admiration for this group.”