Up on the mesa, three out of five Native American students from Fort Lewis College just returned from the First Nations Launch, where they tied for second in the presentation portion of the contest and received the fastest time for loading their rocket for launch.
But team members are still trying to figure out what caused their rocket to explode as it approached its apogee, about 3,800 feet, during the actual launch competition. Debris spread over half a mile, and the main body of the rocket was never recovered.
Alven Miller, a team member, suspects the problem was an unexpected requirement by contest organizers to use an ejection charge to deploy the rocket’s initial parachute, called a drogue, instead of the group’s designed method of ejecting it with a balloon charge.
Miller speculates – and that’s all he can do because the catastrophic failure occurred after the rocket entered a bank of clouds and was out of sight – the ejection charge punched a hole through the body of the rocket, causing the catastrophic failure.
“We knew it was going to be a problem because a balloon method will create a nondirectional charge. An ejection charge goes out directionally,” he said.
The team’s 6-foot rocket was made of cardboard; some rockets that big are made of fiberglass or even carbon fiber.
Miller said the team chose cardboard because it is lighter, but it is also more fragile, which is why he said the team protested using the ejection charge to deploy the initial parachute.
Miller said he even asked the organizers to remove 1 gram of the 2 grams of black powder in the ejection charge in an effort make it less explosive, but he’s not sure if that was done.
“We need to find the rocket to prove our theory,” he said. “But hopefully, it will lead to a rules change for the competition, and everyone can fire their rocket based on its original design, which is rule No. 1 in engineering. You don’t go and change things at the last minute.”
The competition, held in Kansasville, Wisconsin, was held near a marsh, and Miller speculates the main body of the rocket came down horizontally instead of vertically, which is why no one spotted it after it came out of the clouds.
The main body was never recovered, only the nose cone, a 1-foot section of the rocket and some Nomex material was found.
Volunteers in Wisconsin, he said, are still trying to recover the main body of the rocket, but it could be lost in the marsh. Miller said he’d like to find it to prove his theory.