They call themselves Team Ursa, a reference both to the constellation Ursa Major and, Latin for bear, also a reference to the
The senior project was initially just theory -- the students set out to create their own more efficient rocket design, and spent hours calculating airflow and rates of atmospheric pressure, using computer designs as models.
Over time, though, the project evolved. The students began building pieces of the rocket, milling sheets of aluminum and welding pieces together in the campus'
Today, they have raised
That a group of students has managed to put together a working rocket ship is a sign of how the world of aeronautics has changed.
During the space race of the 1960s, all of America's space ambitions were channeled through the
But in recent years,
This year, federal officials announced a projected 2014 budget of
Against this backdrop, private companies have begun to emerge. Two in particular,
The companies have made significant strides in achieving privately-funded space missions, while helping to bring the cost of space exploration down.
In April, Virgin's rocket became the first commercial spacecraft to break the speed of sound, while in
Atchison said the privatizing of space flight is creating massive cost savings by driving cost-effective solutions to aeronautical problems.
However, he said space tourism, designed to send people into sub-orbital regions for very short periods of time, isn't going to help advance the science for long-term space travel.
While the government spends millions per mission, and private companies spend hundred of thousands, the students, operating by necessity on a shoestring budget, have spent only
Ostromecky said the project is still seeking funding support, and asked that those who are interested visit the Rocket Mavericks website at www.rocketmavericks.com.
Much of the funding for the project came from the
Other support came from the Mavericks, and from another foundation.
"We're an order of magnitude cheaper and there's huge educational value because they're actually learning to do the engineering," Atchison said. "There's nothing wrong with the consumer approach but I'm not sure you get the same educational bang for the buck."
The real value of Team Ursa's project may be in the support and inspiration it provides to other student projects.
The rocket is equipped with sensors, called pressure transducers, that will measure the airflow and pressure of the new design, a critical set of data that will demonstrate that the student design is hardy enough to stand up to the intense pressures of launch, re-entry, and outer space.
If the data proves Ostromecky and his teammates right, the design will be duplicated over and over, as the Mavericks begin guiding high school students around the country in building their own, smaller versions.
Atchison said the future of space exploration depends on a new generation of young people being inspired to take up rocketry and other forms of engineering.
Atchison said students like Ostromecky, who grew up reading about rocketry and space exploration in magazines and online articles, are becoming more rare.
Ostromecky said it wasn't until he became a university student that he began to appreciate the importance of the underlying scientific principles of solid mechanics and fluid mechanics in space exploration.
"It kind of hit me, this is pretty much rocket science when you put it all together."
The Mavericks are trying to encourage more engineering-minded students, and have a stated goal of helping 6,000 student do 300 sub-orbital flights over the next five years.
For Ostromecky and Atchison, the work they do is deadly serious, and performed with a sense of urgency because life on Earth, they say, is not sustainable.
"The hard realities for humans on the planet is that we've got to get off of it if were going to survive as a species," Atchison said. He said that, if people haven't established an off-Earth presence 100 years by now, "we'll be extinct."
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