Designing rockets that reach mile-high altitudes may seem like something only available to professionals, but thanks to Swarthmore’s Rocketry Club, students here at Swarthmore are building and launching their own rockets.
The rocketry club was founded by Kevin Dee ’22 and Simon Ji ’23 in 2021 in collaboration with the Swarthmore Physics Society, the engineering department, and the campus’s Makerspace, with the intention of providing practical experience to complement students’ STEM studies. The club works in the Swarthmore Makerspace where small groups meet twice a week to design and build their own spacecrafts.
In the 2021-2022 school year, Dee and Ji ran into numerous challenges as they tried to overcome safety concerns and secure funding in the midst of the COVID pandemic. The head of activities and other Swarthmore administrators were concerned about explosive rocket parts being shipped, rockets causing potential damage, and parts being stored properly.
To fix these challenges, the founders pursued and received insurance information from the National Association of Rocketry (a non-profit organization that serves as the authority on safety and offers insurance for member clubs). They were given funding and approval, and the club has since been active with construction and launches.
Each year, the club starts with introductory lessons, aimed at teaching basic rocketry concepts, design techniques, and important software, namely Fusion 360, a computer-aided design program for 3D printing, and OpenRocket, a flight-prediction program.
Ji noted that a goal of the rocketry club is to give students this hands-on practical experience with different programs and tools. In his experience with the engineering program, Ji has learned that students could benefit from some out-of-the-classroom hands-on experience using this software.
“What I felt is the engineering courses here don’t really give you a lot of opportunities to learn these [softwares], even though that’s such an important part of your job,” Ji said. “This is more of an opportunity for students to get a chance to learn this.”
Dee, who currently works in the aerospace industry at Lockheed Martin (a leading aerospace and global security company), found that his experience with rocketry helped kick start his career.
“Doing rocketry has definitely had an influence on my professional trajectory, and I can say for certain that being involved in rocketry is what drove me to seek work in the aerospace industry for summer internships, and now full-time employment,” Dee said.
Dee also found the rocketry club equipped him with the skills to excel in his chosen field.
“I do feel that my experience has better enabled me to navigate the world of aerospace. I have also found that learning more about electronics and coding, and being taught to use the tools in the Makerspace, have all enabled me to better pursue other creative projects unrelated to rocketry,” said Dee.
After students have learned the basics, they are guided through building their own rockets using apparatus like the laser-cutter and 3D printer. Because of safety restrictions, students cannot test their rockets before the launch. Being unable to test means that students must pay close attention to every detail. Even so, there are still mishaps on launch day because Rocketry Club members cannot test them beforehand. Ji recalled a time that a near-perfect rocket exploded due to a small error.
“It’s really sad because the rocket was pretty much built perfectly, the only reason it failed was there was a tiny gap where the air exits, and we didn’t account for that,” Ji said.
Despite the errors, the club had three successful launches in spring 2022. Most rockets flew to a height of around 1000 feet and were safely recovered. Ji’s rocket reached one mile (5280 feet) and approached the speed of sound (about 1100 feet/second).
While many Rocketry Club members are in engineering or physics, the club is open to all students. Ella Yadav ’23, who is studying economics and statistics, greatly enjoyed her time last year in the club.
“Even though I’m not an engineering or physics major, I’ve always been interested in building things, which is why I’ve started taking art classes at Swarthmore, so I viewed building the rocket as an art project with a sciency twist,” she said. “I spent weeks last semester just painting the rocket, and I plan to put even more effort into my next paint job.”
Yadav encourages any student to join, regardless of their major, and emphasizes how much support she received while building and launching.
To allow more advanced builders to pursue tougher challenges, club members are receiving leveled certification based on size and complexity. Level One is building and launching a rocket; Level Two is launching a larger rocket and taking a written exam; and Level Three is meeting with a certified advisor and writing a paper while building a bigger, more complex rocket.
Ji encourages all interested students to join, regardless of major or experience level.
“A lot of people think of rockets as inaccessible — something that only NASA is able to build. I think it’s really cool that college students are able to do something like this, and make it legal and accessible to everyone who’s interested in it. You’re seeing something fly that you’re making yourself,” said Ji.
The club’s next steps for new students will be teaching them the basics of building their own rockets. Returning students will be encouraged to take on passion projects and find their areas of interest with Ji and Club President Mark Lohatepanont ’24 providing the materials and support needed. This year, Ji hopes to expand the Rocketry Club and reach for the stars.