Some say it’s not rocket science, but for USF’s Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry (SOAR) it is exactly that.
SOAR is competing in the Base 11 Space Challenge in hopes of making university history. The first launch was over five years ago, but SOAR is planning to perform its next test launch March 17.
“We’ve done some tests so far and if everything goes well it will be the first working liquid engine the university has ever created,” SOAR President Javian Hernandez said. “It is also going to be one of the most powerful in the nation right now. Out of all the universities, there are only a dozen that have a rocket engine. Out of those dozen, only a couple are producing the same amount of force we are producing.”
The Base 11 Space Challenge is a competition with a $1 million prize. The challenge requires teams to design, build and launch a rocket to reach 100 kilometers, also known as the Karman Line, by Dec. 30, 2021, according to the competition’s website.
SOAR is competing against schools such as the University of Michigan, University of California Los Angeles and Purdue University, all of which have accredited aerospace programs.
Hernandez said the organization struggled to receive approval from Student Government (SG) because of the insurance needed for the equipment.
He said SG allocates about $40,000 each year and roughly $25,000 was spent so far on Base 11, with a majority of it going toward insurance.
“The first six months was actually the hardest,” Hernandez said. “We had to fight with SG just to get the insurance required for this competition. We even had to get permission from the provost of the university just to participate. This type of request has never been made before. The regulations were not clear for spending [Activity and Service] fees on insurance. We followed the steps to eventually bring it up to the Senate for them to discuss it and eventually get approved.”
Hernandez also said that their team works harder on the calculations than most other teams because USF lacks professors who are knowledgeable on the subject.
“We don’t have any professors that know a lot about aerospace,” Hernandez said. “We don’t have the opportunity to ask a professor, ‘How do we know if this calculation is correct?’”
After winning the battle for approval, SOAR was able to demonstrate it first test launch with secured funding from SG and the College of Arts of Sciences, during which Hernandez said it did not go as expected.
“It did not go very well,” he said. “[The rocket] has two plumbing lines, one is for fuel and one is for oxygen. The oxidized side froze.”
Rocket building and testing also required the team to take advantage of all funding available. Hernandez also said that they have spent a substantial amount of money to create and test the rocket design.
“Just to test our engine we spent about $25,000,” Hernandez said. “Each rocket costs about $8,000.”
If SOAR takes home the grand prize, half of the prize money will go to STEM education programs while the other half goes back to the university in hopes of building new facilities and buying more equipment for the program.
Hernadez explained that community outreach means a lot to the team and sharing part of the prize money to encourage STEM education is a priority.
“We’ve done work with Girls Scouts, Mosi, AmRoc and the Engineering Expo on campus,” Hernandez said. “We are always trying to give back to the community, it’s important to us.”
SOAR’s main adviser, Manoug Manougian, a mathematics professor and the director of the STEM Education Center, is considered to be the father of the Lebanese space program.
In 1963, Manougian and his students in the Haigazian College Rocket Society developed the Cedar IV rocket, which reached 140 kilometers. With the help of Manougian, Hernandez said they were able to make it this far.
Hernandez said he believes USF is the underdog in this competition but, at the end of the day, he said rocket creation and testing is what fuels the team’s passion. SOAR also hopes to make an impact on the university and to start this for future students interested in aerospace.
“My favorite thing about this is we’re creating something from scratch, we are building a rocketry program,” Hernandez said.
“We’re making history.”