COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — The U.S. Air Force Academy will attempt to launch a student-built sounding rocket carrying a test payload from the Virginia coast May 20 following a delay due to vehicle damage that occurred during shipment.
John Van Winkle, a spokesman for the academy, said the FalconLAUNCH-6 launch had been targeted for April 18 but was postponed after the rocket suffered a crack in its solid fuel that occurred during shipment from the school in Colorado Springs, Colo., to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. The contractor who provided the fuel has fixed the crack, and the rocket is set to launch during a May 20-22 window, Van Winkle said in a May 5 e-mail.
FalconLAUNCH-6 carries an inertial measurement unit that is being space qualified on behalf of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, according to Air Force Col. Martin France, head of the Air Force Academy’s astrophysics department.
Air Force Academy cadets launch a sounding rocket each year under the FalconLAUNCH program, France said in an April 6 interview. The program has the goal of launching a 5-kilogram payload to an altitude of 100 kilometers, he said.
FalconLAUNCH-6 will carry its payload, weighing approximately 3 kilograms, to an altitude of about 43 kilometers, France said. The rocket is roughly 3 meters long and weighs about 90 kilograms, he said.
The academy started the program in 2002 due in part to the growing popularity in the FalconSAT program, which gives students hands-on experience building small satellites. Four FalconSAT craft have launched over the past 10 years, but the number of cadets interested in the program has outgrown the number of available slots, France said.
Both programs are labeled capstone courses, meaning they last for two semesters and are intended for seniors. Enrollment, however, is not limited to cadets in the astronautical engineering field, France said.
The FalconSAT program features three-year design cycles, a challenging goal that is rare outside the academy, France said. The FalconLAUNCH program’s annual flights have made it the more popular one with cadets; the academy is forced at times to shift some students from the rocket to the satellite program, he said.
While interest in the academy’s space curriculum has grown in recent years, it likely has not kept pace with the military’s surging demand for space capabilities, France said.
“Space is hard,” France said. “Physics and astronautical engineering have the reputation of being two of the most difficult and time consuming majors. There will be some who may be interested, but may not major in it because it might scare people off – that’s true nationwide in any engineering and science and technology discipline. The biggest impediment to the number of engineering majors we have nationwide is it’s hard.”
Approximately half of the academy students who select space-related majors eventually go into pilot training and do not return to the space field for 10-15 years, France said. The others are in hot demand from the Air Force’s space procurement, launch and research and development centers, he said.
William Saylor, a professor in the academy’s astronautics department, said cadets in the FalconSAT and FalconLAUNCH courses are performing many of the same functions as space professionals, managing programs and giving progress reports to superiors. The students “don’t get treated at all like cadets” as they handle difficult tasks that include briefing the Pentagon’s Space Experiments Review Board to secure launch priority for their payloads, and explaining issues like weight growth to officials from the Space Test Program in order to maintain their place on an upcoming launch, he said.
“It will make them better contractors, better program acquisition officers, because they’ve seen it and done it first hand themselves,” France said.
FalconSAT-3, the most recent spacecraft in the series, which launched in March 2007, is functioning well after some initial software difficulty that provided cadets with valuable experience in anomaly resolution, France said. The satellite’s power systems are performing at a level that suggests it could operate two years past its expected one-year lifetime, he said.
France credits FalconSAT-3’s success, along with the cadets’ work on FalconSAT-2 – now on display at the academy after crashing into a storage shed during a launch failure – with prompting other universities both in the United States and abroad to propose cooperative projects.
France also is dealing with the impact of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq on the astronautics programs at the academy. While enrollment in the space courses has not been affected, there is demand for personnel across the academy’s staff to contribute to the current operations, he said.
One example is Lt. Col. Tim Lawrence, director of the academy’s Space Systems Research Center, who is serving a six-month tour in Afghanistan as vice dean of the national military academy in Kabul, the nation’s capital. France himself is leaving the academy in June for 12 months to become the chief scientist and technical advisor to the Joint Improvised Explosive Defense Organization in Arlington, Va.
France and Lawrence both are expected to return to their positions at the academy. France said that during his absence, his duties will be handled by Lt. Col. Lynnane George, the first woman to head an engineering department in the school’s history.