Seventy feet above the ground, Cal Ripken’s body dangled from a tree branch. No, not the Hall of Fame baseball player, but a homemade rocket a couple feet long. The fact that this body was inanimate didn’t make the scene any less tragic for the members of Northeastern’s chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. They’d spent months running through new designs and testing it out in preparation for the annual AIAA Battle of the Rockets in Culpeper, Va.
Everything would have been fine if it hadn’t been for that epic traffic jam in Washington, D.C., which shaved hours off their practice round. By the time they finally made it to Virginia, they only had time for one test run. And it didn’t go well. The parachute deployed a little too late, sending the rocket into a jolting inversion, which caused the nose cap to detach from the rest of the rocket.
“So there was close to no mass left on the body and it drifted into a tree,” said Andrew Buggee, S’16, founding president of the student group. As dusk set in and rain clouds threatened, the team members had no choice but to abandon their ship until morning, hoping as they slept that the rain would hold off long enough for them to retrieve—and then reassemble—the rocket.
In that, they were pretty lucky. The next morning they went to the hardware store and purchased long plastic tubes to try and knock it out of the tree. That didn’t work. Neither did any of their other efforts, which also included throwing tethered rocks at it.
Ultimately, the event’s unofficial tree climber shimmied up the tree and lassoed the rocket into his possession. The team finally had it back by 2:45pm on Saturday. The event would end at 4pm—just enough time to run two official launches.
The goal of the AIAA Battle of the Rockets is to get a device as close to 1,500 feet above the ground as possible. One hundred feet more or less, and the run would be disqualified. Luckily, each team can complete as many runs as it wishes and enter only its two best into the official record. Not so luckily, Northeastern’s team only had two runs to choose from, so they had to enter both.
But that turned OK: After some patching and improvements to Cal Ripken, he did significantly better than his one practice run on Friday. These runs didn’t send him into a decapitating tailspin, but rather got him closer to the goal height than any other team: 1,503 and 1,573 feet, respectively.
The Northeastern team beat out student groups from Pennsylvania State University, Johns Hopkins, and Florida Institute of Technology among others and got to bring home a nice plaque to display in the Snell Engineering Center.
Not bad for the student group’s first official event.