USU’s Chimaera soars above high-ranking competitors in NASA competition

By Allie Jeppson

A rocket built by USU engineering students was named overall project winner on April 22 at NASA’s annual University Student Launch Initiative (USLI) in Toney, Ala. Competing against 41 other schools including MIT, Purdue and Georgia Tech, the award has become a tradition among USU engineering students, as it marked their fourth win in five years.

USLI rules require the student-built rocket to reach an altitude of one mile above ground level, carry a scientific payload, be reusable and be recovered within 2,500 feet of the launch pad. During the competition USU Sturgeon rocket came within two percent of reaching the mile-high altitude. With its success in other areas, the USU Chimaera Rocket Team proved to be ahead of its competitors.

“It feels absolutely amazing to have gotten through the whole year and have it all pay off,” Chimaera Chief Engineer Daniel Merkley said.

“It’s almost expected of us now,” Brock Wilberg, Aerospace Systems lead, said of winning. “You’d hate to disappoint the department. USU has a good reputation. It feels good to pay tribute to your alma mater by doing well in these competitions.”

USU’s most recent NASA rocket-building champions took the title back to Logan for the fourth time in five years.

With such a lofty winning-record, the students definitely felt pressure to do well.

“Because the competition has been getting more and more good schools entering, we were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to keep up this tradition,” Merkley said. “We had a lot of pressure on us to continue this tradition and being able to do that is awesome.”

The success doesn’t come without a price, said Stephen Whitmore, Chimaera advisor and engineering professor. “It doesn’t come by accident that we’ve been able to win the competition like this,” he said. “We have the commitment to do it.”

The long-term competition requires each team to first submit a project proposal that must be accepted by NASA, followed by multiple design proposals and reviews.

Whitmore said the course competition is based upon a scoring rubric with a series of milestones the team must accomplish. “The NASA peer review panel will grade you on your various parts of the entire project,” he added.

Then comes the actual rocket construction and testing processes, which can take up to six months. Altogether, the whole thing takes almost an entire school year to complete from start to launch, but the extra time and effort will prove beneficial when it comes to getting a job.

“The experience (is) unparalleled at an undergraduate level,” Wiberg said. “From a systems engineering standpoint it’s the highest-level project that I’ve been able to do as an undergrad.”

That type of real-world experience helps students to prepare for the professional field, Whitmore said.

“The students have to go through the formal design process that they would if they were in the industry,” Whitmore said. “(When they) go to work in the industry, they’ll be able to jump in and make contributions right away because they understand what’s happening.”

Merkley agreed.

“We went through a full design process with oversight from NASA engineers, which is exactly what a lot of the companies do out there,” Merkley said. “Now we have experience doing that before we leave (USU).”

Hands-on learning like Chimaera experienced says a lot about the type of school USU is, Whitmore said. “It shows the commitment of our department in our college to have an excellence here.”

As a student, Wiberg thought the same.

“It’s hard to find as much bang for your buck elsewhere given the faculty-to-student ratio being so low and the amount of dollars,” he said. “It’s good to see that we can compete.”

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