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Bethel Rocket Club is Off the Ground

A spin-off of Bethel’s involvement with the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, the student-led group has designed and built its first rocket, with its next official launch happening later this month.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

September 27, 2019 | 8:30 a.m.

The Rocket Club at their first launch: November 2018 in North Branch, Minnesota

The Rocket Club at their first launch: November 2018 in North Branch, Minnesota

“The best way to learn is by doing,” says Kallai Hokanson ’20. “And we do a lot of doing!”

“ ... and re-doing. And re-doing again,” adds Evan Scharnick ’21 with a chuckle. 

Hokanson is double majoring in applied physics, with an emphasis in mechanics, and computer science. She’s part of the Bethel Optics and Lasers Team, Women in Physics and Engineering, and Sigma Pi Sigma physics honors society. Scharnick is pursuing a bachelor of science in physics and stays involved with departmental events and opportunities as they come up. 

But it’s their latest endeavor—taking the helm as leaders of Bethel’s first Rocket Club—that’s had them logging hours in Bethel’s new-and-improved machine shop. As they designed and built Bethel’s first competition rocket, Toy Story-themed “Ad Infinitum,” many in their group have become experts at using a CNC mill, bandsaws, 3D printers, and power tools like drills and lathes. Some have also learned the ins and outs of the art department’s laser cutter in order to create precision-cut, heavy-duty rocket fins. 

University of Minnesota Professor James Flaten, associate director of the NASA-sponsored Minnesota Space Grant Consortium (MnSGC)⁠—of which Bethel has been a member for decades⁠—first approached the Department of Physics and Engineering in spring 2018 about getting involved in rocketry as a way to build hands-on skills and collaboration between local departments. Last November, the students launched Ad Infinitum at the Tripoli Minnesota High Power Rocketry Club launch field in North Branch, Minnesota, alongside teams from Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Paul College, the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, Saint Cloud State University, and Normandale College.

“Bethel has been a participating member in NASA's MnSPG for many years, and a number of our physics and engineering majors jumped at the opportunity to get involved in rocketry,” says Professor of Physics and club advisor Keith Stein. He explains that Bethel students have worked through a series of video tutorials which taught them the basics of rocketry and coached them on building a high-power, dual-deploy kit. “There has been quite a bit of student excitement about the ‘launching’ of the club, so we look forward to moving this forward.” 

Now in their second year, the Rocket Club sets up camp in one of the electrical engineering labs for regular meetings. They’ve learned by trial and error, piecing together self-fabricated parts with components they’ve found on Apogee Rockets, Discount Rocketry, or Off We Go Rocketry. They consider different combinations of parts, and model their potential flight paths, using the free online software Open Rocket. And they’re applying for official club status through Bethel Student Government in order to receive funding for future builds. 

“Right now we’re just doing the one rocket, but we would like to have everyone have an understanding of the entire build process, to get smaller kit rockets where everyone can get their hands wet,” says Hokanson. “We can launch up to a G motor now. But we’d like to dabble in smaller motors, so we’d be able to launch them ourselves, more frequently.”

“And we’d like building to be a simpler process than it was last semester,” adds Scharnick. “The one we’re about to launch was a lot of work. We made it all from scratch. That was cool but obviously took a lot of time. There are a lot of competitions around the country, with a wide range of competitiveness.” A few students are considering going through training to become high-power rocketry certified, which would enable them to launch rockets with bigger motors and open them up to bigger and more prestigious competitions on the national level. But on September 28, the club will first head to Hollendale, Minnesota, for the “Checklist Challenge,” a public launch coordinated by Flaten and other local MnSGC partners. 

For this event, the team will earn points based on how many different launch and design criteria they meet. They’ll need to launch the same rocket twice, once to 3,000 feet and once to 4,000⁠—which takes some finesse. At “apogee”⁠—the technical term for the highest point in the rocket’s flight pat⁠h⁠—they’ll receive extra points for successfully completing a secondary action that adds complexity to the flight. Because the team didn’t have time to troubleshoot tricks that would interfere with the flight path, the plan is for apogee to trigger a switch that will illuminate the rocket.

“If it’s too far away for us to see it, there will also be cameras mounted on the rocket,” explains Scharnick. “This project has taught us a lot, from electronics to 3D printing, to elements of fluid dynamics and aerodynamics. We’ve gotten better at drafting through Creo and blender.org, a free modeling software.”

And, at times, the group has had to overcome challenges together. Scharnick describes one time when, trying to figure out how to quickly alter the weight of the rocket between launches to the two different required heights, they were hitting a dead end. The team was considering just pouring quick-dry concrete into the body tube to add weight. 

“That was not ideal,” he says. “So we created a very dense blob—basically Play-Doh filled with lead beads, like buckshot. It took some creativity. But usually, we end up having a product that’s better because of the problem-solving process. And honestly, whatever we end up doing in our careers, it will always involve seeing a problem and being able to decipher the best way to approach it.”

Rocket Club members assemble components in Bethel's Electrical Engineering Lab

Rocket Club members assemble components in Bethel's Electrical Engineering Lab

According to Hokanson, the tight-knit community in Bethel physics and engineering has made the team more resilient. Students and faculty know each other well, they can see an issue and instantly know who’s best equipped to help fix it, and they have access to labs and equipment that undergraduate students at other colleges don’t often have. Those benefits play out in opportunities off-campus, too. She explains how she’s already done an internship in pulsed power at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and spent summers doing research with Professor of Physics Nathan Lindquist in the NanoLab.

Scharnick agrees, mentioning his summer at CERN in Switzerland, working alongside Professor Julie Hogan, who’s researching subatomic particles through a grant from the National Science Foundation. He says that whether he’s using physics to explain the origin of matter or using power tools and drafting software to design components for a rocket, theory and practical skills come together in a unique way at Bethel. 

“Our professors are so accessible. There’s less competition for internships, but they’re still really good ones. We have a better shot at these really important early work opportunities.”

— Evan Scharnick ’21
Rocket Club members, including Hokanson (left) and Scharnick (center)

Rocket Club members, including Hokanson (left) and Scharnick (center)

Join the Club

The Rocket Club is applying to become a sponsored student organization through Bethel Student Government. In the meantime, they’re raising funds that will enable them to participate in regional and national competitions. Join or support the Rocket Club by contacting Professor Keith Stein in the Department of Physics and Engineering

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