Sitting on the edge of Montana State University’s Bozeman campus, flanked by the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house, lies a cluster of small, unassuming buildings. Most of this band is made up of multi-use portables, connected by a network of steel platforms raised off the ground in an effort to keep the snow away from the anchored portables as much as possible. These are the College of Engineering’s creative suites, a space for students to create, develop, and execute research projects and ideas. The suites are used by several clubs, leaving dozens of mid-development projects scattered around the facility in a somewhat disorganized clutter. Inside the Borealis Laboratory, which is one of the sections of the complex, is the MSU Rocketry Club, a student run club that formed three years ago dedicated to the exploration of aerospace engineering and exploration.
Their goal, as the name suggests, is to build a number of rockets that they hope to both explore and research advanced aerospace technology, as well as compete against other schools to test their build quality.
“MSU Rocketry Club gives us an opportunity that most of the students here wouldn’t otherwise get,” said Carter McIver, one of the founding members of the club. “It allows us to gain experience that isn’t available through the school.”
Montana State University, despite having a positive relationship with NASA, lacks a Major devoted primary to Aerospace, relegating the field to only an optional 31 credit 8 class minor, only one being specifically devoted to the discipline. With little dedicated opportunity to dive into the field, several students have banded together in order to form the MSU Rocketry club, with the purpose of earning experience in aerospace that they otherwise would not receive through the school’s curriculum.
The opinion that the school is sorely lacking this major is not held only by McIver. Many of the members, all of whom are studying some form of engineering, feel that it is too valuable of a career path to only be relegated to only a minor field of study. Their goal, as the name suggests, is to build a number of rockets that they hope to both explore and research advanced aerospace technology, as well as compete against other schools to test their build quality. The opinion that the school is sorely lacking this major is not held only by McIver. Many of the members, all of whom are studying some form of engineering, feel that it is too valuable of a career path to only be relegated to only a minor field of study.
The group is fairly diverse when it comes to education. There are mechanical engineers, civil construction engineers, computer science and engineering majors, even a chemical engineering student. This spread, however, is beneficial to the team as not only does it bring together different fields, as is the case in many projects in the real world, but it also affords the students the opportunity to apply their education in a real-world application.
The students do everything from building the outer shell to wiring the internal steering and recording instruments. The rocket begins to take shape, a process that is slowed by the cramped and cluttered working conditions that is the creative space.
Over the course of the rocket build, subgroups would form within the team in order to focus on specific tasks that needed doing, such as wiring or body construction. These subgroups would be primarily made up along lines of the student's degrees. However, as the build progressed further, there began to be a lot of crossover of the departments. Different majoring students would do jobs outside of their field in order to learn and explore, a luxury that again, isn’t a given by just staying within the confines of the curriculum. This was the goal of the clubs founding: to have opportunities to try new things and be in an environment to fail without the consequences of a real-world environment. That’s what the club is: the real-world simulation that affords these club members a place to attempt new things and gain experience that they otherwise would not get.
Montana state in recent months has been no stranger to the aerospace community. As the rocketry club works away in their creative space, the office of Leadership, along with a few other organizations on campus have been courting the community. First, the screening of the film, The First Man, at the Procrastinator Theater. The screening event included a lecture by former astronaut Loren Acton, who spoke about the Apollo 11 mission. This was followed by Astronaut Scott Kelly in early April.
“I think it’s important to highlight this era of space exploration, and to hear what those who have taken this path in the past to inspire and inform those who will in the future,” said Ben Manion, an employee in MSU’s Leadership Institute.
Manion has been spearheading the effort to bring aerospace experts to the university. “While I am not an engineering student, I think that with the recent developments in aeronautics and exploration, like with the effort to get to Mars, I think that Montana State needs to be part of the next step in humanity," Manion said. "Bringing an Aerospace major to the school is just one part of that.”
When the College of Engineering was contacted about why MSU does not have a degree in this field, there was no response.
As of now, the Rocketry club are putting the final touches on the first of several rockets they have been building throughout the semester. Their goal is to do the initial launches in early May of this year.
Although some of the club are graduating seniors, they hope that their first step is only the beginning for ensuring a positive environment for students to come. “We want to make sure that this club will survive just beyond my time here,” said McIver, who is finishing his junior year. “When I and a few other students started this club, we had no form of hands experience with this stuff. I hope we can keep this alive.”
With the deadline approaching the team has moved into higher gear. With several of the other projects slowly being completed, moved out of the creative space, or thrown away, the team moves quicker and with more tools.
Rather than taking the slow route of fabricating every component, some of the newer rockets utilize 3D printed parts. Once the preliminary bugs have been figured out, the crew was able to start ramping production faster, now knowing the steps needed to be taken.
The team's focus is to not only complete the rocket, but also to compete in the 2019 Spaceport America Cup. The Cup, held the third week of June in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is part academic conference, part aeronautical competition for collegiate rocketeers. The 2019 lineup features 122 teams, including Ivy League and International institutions.
"All of the students come here, they're always working on something new. Beyond that, they're learning at the same time. They are able to have fun, do the subject matter they are learning in school, and apply that to a project," said McIver. "I feel that us working on this rocket is really going to show what we're capable of, and the quality that MSU students have."
As the finishing touches are applied and final tests run, the team can see their goal in sight. In the final weeks of the school year, many of the crew have been doubled their time in the lab, trying to make sure that not only the deadlines will be met, but also that the upcoming competition is a success. Despite not having the dedicated major, workspace, or support that one could fine among the university they will be facing in New Mexico, they are determined to pass with flying colors.