Shooting for space: A look into USC Rocket Propulsion Lab’s launch in the desert

9:30 a.m., September 29: There’s nothing in Black Rock DesertIt stretches for a hundred miles in northeastern Nevada, a brown, barren landscape beneath shades of millennial pink, tangerine and lavender. In stark contrast is the glossy, white body of Traveler III, a 13-foot-long rocket resting on a blue tarp on the desert floor. Behind Traveler III, clusters of tents—some for sleeping, some for working on the rocket—dot the playa, and around them huddle about 60 college students, who are members of USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory. In the air, there’s palpable tension and excitement, packs of students rushing back-and-forth between the launch site and the campsite, where the vehicle has been freshly spray-painted white to reflect its namesake, the horse mascot of the university. Their goal sounds deceptively simple: to send the first 100 percent student-designed and -engineered rocket to space. After all, how many rockets have humans successfully launched to space since Sputnik in 1957? But there’s a reason why no student group has done it before: It’s difficult to pull off.

Traveler lll was supposed to take off at 9:00 a.m., but a technical issue has pushed back the launch time. Now, as team members frantically work to prepare the rocket, a more serious issue lurks on the horizon. In the distance, RPL members notice a sandstorm approaching, a swirling monochrome sharply outlined against the brown of the desert floor.

“Go, go, go!” Shouts can be heard from the avionics team, which is responsible for the electronic systems embedded in the rocket. They’re alerting the launch and tower teams that if the rocket is going to launch before the sandstorm hits, then it needs to be ready within minutes.

But the storm approaches rapidly, and by 9:45 a.m., RPL is forced to move Traveler III back inside the trailer until the storm passes.

As the storm descends upon the group, members wearing respirators, face scarves and goggles continue discussing launch plans. If the group doesn’t launch today, then they have to go back to Black Rock Desert another weekend. But planning this kind of trip takes considerable preparation, so not launching this weekend would be a major setback.

It will be up to the lead engineering students to determine the appropriate course of action.

SPACE OR NOTHING

Black Rock visitors aren’t typically bogged down with stress of this magnitude: They’re too busy transforming themselves in the creative, connected world of Burning Man. Every year, between late August and early September, around 70,000 people gather at the temporary city built around radical self-expressionthe first-timer guide debunks the assumed definition of Burning Man as a “festival”where art installations go up and a large wooden structure (“the Man”) burn down.

By the end of September, less than a month after Burning Man ends, the desert becomes empty again. It’s the perfect time and place for college students with no other weekend plans to launch a rocket.

RPL was founded in 2005 with the goal of “space or nothing,” the motto recited by these 60 Trojans. The group said that while not all 21 rockets launched during its 13-year history have been specifically made to go to space, it’s still the consistent goal. RPL sets smaller goals for certain rockets, preparing for bigger launches out of this worldliterally.

“Rocket science is easy; rocket engineering is hard,” said senior Dennis Smalling, the lead lab engineer. “The fundamental theory behind rockets is not complicated. The hard part is building them and making sure all the little things go right.”

They reached an impressive milestone in March 2017: Fathom II soared to 144,000 feet after launching from Spaceport America, breaking the world record for the highest altitude reached by a student rocketry group. But for Traveler III, the goal is to finally reach space by flying beyond the Karman line, which, at approximately 330,000 feet, is the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

“[Space or nothing] means we don’t settle for anything,” said senior Kaustubh Vinchure, the propulsion team lead engineer.

RPL has trekked to Black Rock Desert since 2011 because there are only two places where amateur rocketry groups can legally launch rockets: Spaceport America in New Mexico or Black Rock Desert. This group of engineers is constantly learning how to become better from past failures at this site. Traveler I from September 2013 was “the world’s first collegiate space shot attempt” from Black Rock Desert, but it failed, according to RPL’s website. Traveler II followed suit in May 2014 and exploded after igniting at around 4,000 feet. This time around, RPL hopes updates to the rocket made by new members and leaders will help accomplish this goal. 

This rocket launch is the first space shot attempted by this current group of students in lab, but its launch was originally scheduled for last May. The rocket was entirely finished by the end of last semester, but the motor for Traveler III couldn’t fit inside the shell. This hiccup caused the launch to be postponed until this semester, as adjustments were made to the same exact rocket so the motor could be properly integrated.

This weekend’s trip has already encountered its fair share of difficulties. Despite departing from USC at 10 a.m. Sept. 27 for the 12-hour drive to the desert, RPL members are delayed when the trailer carrying the rocket loses one of its back wheels.

Instead of arriving at 10 p.m. that same day, the group drives into the barren wasteland as the sun is coming up, at 5:30 a.m.

REHEARSAL DAY

5:30 a.m., September 28:

Despite traveling through the night, the group has jumped right into Friday’s schedule, setting up the launch tower roughly half a mile away from camp and performing an entire rehearsal of the launch set for Saturday morning.

As the first storm of the weekend draws near camp, students pack up loose belongings before finding shelter in sturdy tents and cars. The tents set up for the rocket itself and the avionics team are knocked down by gusts of playa dust. 

The rehearsal is gradual but goes smoothly following the sandstorm. Recent alumni Tyler Ahlf, Kristjan Salasoo, Roberto Lopez and Carter Allen watch their former mentees lead a new pack of engineers.

Handing down power and knowledge to younger members shapes the student-teaching environment senior Robert Kancāns, the lead innovation officer, highlights about this amateur rocketry group. “We certainly stand on the shoulders of giants,” he says. “That’s the whole point of RPL is to be a teaching hospital, essentially to make good engineers.”

Ian Whittinghill, the USC alumnus who founded RPL, initially brought eight or nine kids together to pursue a mission that’s still never been achieved by a student organization before. “It’s very humbling to see people carry on a goal we set a long time ago,” he says. “This is a million times bigger and more organized.”

LAUNCH DAY

1:00 p.m., September 29:

The second storm of the weekend has lifted and launch preparation resumes. Face scarves and respirators come off. Traveler III is taken out of the trailer and finally loaded onto the back of the truck to be driven to the launch site. And just like that, the cycle repeats with another sandstorm kicking up in the distance, threatening the group’s recently attempted progress toward a launch that’s hours behind schedule. The large group by the tower where the rocket starts to disperse, leaving only three lead engineering students next to the rocket until the countdown.

1:20 p.m.: The third storm of the weekend forms and starts inching closer to camp, challenging the students. Preparation continues. They don’t want to have to postpone the launch again.

1:40 p.m.: The students by the tower ask if they should launch. Someone from the avionics team orders, “No, I will tell avionics go,” but only the last two words are audible from the other side: “avionics go.” The 10-second countdown can’t be interrupted. The sandstorm is still fast approaching, approximately 10 minutes away from camp. It’s a do-or-die effort for RPL.

Back at camp, the rest of the students, alumni and parents who traveled to the desert at separate times collectively loiter around to prepare for the launch. But their stress intensifies to pure shock. At 1:40 p.m., Traveler III’s unannounced, instantaneous ascent surprises everyone. The glistening white rocket flies above the approximately 100 people who trekked to the desert to witness not “the Man” burning, but Traveler III firing into the sky and hopefully into space.

FLYING BLIND

A rocket travels “about six times the speed of sound, making it one of the fastest things to fly in the lower atmosphere,” Smalling says. Once it has launched, the rocket burns solid propellant for the first 13 seconds of flight before coasting for a few minutes to the desired apogeethe highest altitude reached by the rocketwhich is beyond 330,000 feet that the Karman line is positioned at.

But due to the miscommunication, the avionics team hasn’t armed the rocket, meaning the telemetry system, which tracks and records the acceleration and position of the rocket, isn’t activated. Traveler III is essentially flying blind. And it’s flying without being able to deploy its parachute.

As the fate of the rocket agitates the dense group at camp, everyone must prepare for its ballistic landing. Even though it looks successful, the rocket is about to come down in parts—and RPL members don’t know if the parts will hit camp.

Senior Sidney Wilcox, the lead operations officer, directs everyone to get underneath a car. People scramble to wedge their bodies underneath car motors, caking their clothes with playa dust. Everyone has been warned this might happen during the safety meeting they had to attend before going to the desert. But all is still and quiet for about five minutes. Then some RPL members hear a faint sonic boom in the distance. Slowly, everyone crawls out of their crouched positions to meet in the middle of camp. The rocket lands, but no one knows where.

“The people [at the tower] are okay, and that’s what matters,” Aitoumeziane says. He later explains that the physics behind the flight—the visibly effective ascent and the ballistic landing five minutes after launching—seem to align with a successful space shot. But RPL can’t confirm Traveler III reached its mission without the data.

No one has time to dwell on how frustrating it is not knowing where the rocket traveled and landed. The third sandstorm finally hits camp around 2 p.m., sending the alert crowd scrambling for cover into their cars, where moments before they were lying beneath.

“These last three days have been nothing but testing if you can handle bullshit,” says junior Andrew Newsome.

Within the hour spent waiting out this sandstorm, another one threatens the group just as recovery plans were being discussed. Small search crews, mostly comprised of recovery team members and lead engineering students, depart from camp to conduct the first massive sweep of Black Rock Desert for Traveler III.

Like the rocket, they charge blindly into the desert, entering the eye of the fourth sandstorm. Students keep the length of a football field between each car, vigorously scouring the wasteland for rocket parts. The sky returns to its uniform, dusty gray, while the brown playa while the brown playa turns up nothing but random objects such as a tire and a napkin—anything but a single part of Traveler III. 

Another search operation follows the first, and some RPL members luckily recover old parts from Traveler I and Tirebiter, previous rockets that failed in 2013 and 2015, respectively. By Sunday, the group leaves Black Rock Desert, and what remains of Traveler III, behind. The unknown state of the rocket keeps the students feeling dispirited.

AFTERMATH

The day after the launch, a comment on RPL’s Facebook update renews some team spirit. Curtis Peach, a man from the Black Rock area, writes that he and other people near the desert “may have found the crash site.” 

A surge of promise and uncertainty overcomes the lead engineering students, who return to Black Rock Desert Oct. 6, exactly one week after the ambivalent launch. After eight hours of digging, the small team recovers the majority of a broken rocket from a “single impact site,” according to the Facebook post from Oct. 17.

The hope is only momentary: After analysis, the shattered parts cannot confirm the rocket made it to space.

But the group feels more positive about what Traveler III’s mission means in the long run: They have a perfect blueprint to do it all over again. “It’s frustrating to get so close and yet still not be able to say that you went to space,” Smalling says. “But I’m feeling very hopeful going into Traveler IV, building a similar rocket and improving our processes and our procedures to make sure that this time, we’re going to go to space.”

Heran Mamo
Heran Mamo is the co-editor of Neon and a senior studying journalism with a minor in culture, media and entertainment. She likes writing about pop culture and its convergence with social issues. She has worked as an editorial intern for Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter. In her free time, Heran likes curating Spotify playlists and shopping for sneakers.