NASA/STVM Student Launch Initiative

The Student Launch challenge engages students in a research-based, experiential exploration activity. Teams participating in the challenge must design, build and launch a reusable rocket, with a scientific or engineering payload, capable of reaching an altitude of one mile. Eligible teams pre-qualified by successfully competing in the Team America Rocketry Challenge and finishing in the top 25 of over 800 teams in the country. To qualify for the challenge students must write a proposal based on NASA's Statement of Work and Request for Proposal as with any other competitive bidding process. 

During the design and testing process, the student designs have to undergo in-depth technical reviews and follow actual flight safety guidelines, mentored throughout the process by NASA scientists, engineers and educators. These technical reviews mirror current criteria in NASA's engineering design life-cycle and safety protocol, including preliminary design, critical design, flight readiness and analysis of vehicle systems. 

Students from St. Vincent-St. Mary proposed building a rocket using advanced manufacturing techniques that include additive manufacturing (3D printing) and fiberglass composites while carrying a payload that consisted of a computerized atmospheric gas (CO2) sampler and analyzer. Students chose these manufacturing methods because they allowed the design and construction of very high strength to weight ratio components that could not be made using more traditional methods. Additive manufacturing made it possible to construct parts that are much lighter by using less material while still maintaining the structural integrity demanded their function. Parts are made lighter by putting material where it's needed and leaving it out of areas where it isn't. The void areas can then be infilled with light weight lattice structures to maintain structural integrity. 

The aft section of the rocket, which consists of the booster and fin section, was designed using software that allowed the students to create a 3D model that could then be manufactured as a single part. The students began by designing a rocket using commercial rocket design software. The software allowed them to test fly the rocket using computer simulations to ensure it will perform as intended. Once they were satisfied that their design would meet NASA's specifications, they constructed a half scale model of the rocket. The fin section of the half scale rocket was designed using commercial 3D modeling software and manufactured on one of the 3D printers in school's engineering design lab. The 3D printers use a technology called Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) which extrudes thermoplastics. The fin section was mated to a cardboard body tube and the rocket was flight tested several times under varying conditions to ensure that its flight characteristics matched those of the computer simulation predictions. 

A digital design of the full scale booster and fin section was then sent to rp+m (Rapid Prototype and Manufacturing), an advanced manufacturing company located in Avon Lake, Ohio. Engineers from rp+m collaborated with the students to finalize the design and construction material choice. An advanced thermoplastic with very high tensile and compressive strength properties as well as high temperature resistance called ULTEM 9085 was selected as the part material. 

The rocket's body was made from fiber-glass composite materials. These materials also provided for very high material strength to weight ratios which are very important to the aerospace industry. Lighter stronger vehicles make it possible to for larger payloads to be lifted without having to use greater amounts of fuel. 

In addition to designing and constructing the rocket using advanced manufacturing techniques, the team also designed an engineering payload. The payload, a computer controlled atmospheric gas sampling and analysis apparatus that will take a gas sample every 10 seconds during descent, analyze its CO2 concentration, and store the results. Students used off the shelf computerized components and gas sensors to construct the apparatus and calibrate it. 

Not only do the students design and build an advanced rocket with functioning sensory equipment, the team also must raise approximately $10,000 to construct the rocket, and travel to Huntsville, Alabama. The project is funded by generous donations from partners in industry, and donations from individuals and companies. With the help of these sponsors, this group of six students are able to reach new heights in getting hands-on engineering experience and learning about cutting edge technology in this new age of additive manufacturing.

For more information about this and other STVM engineering projects please visit If you are interested in getting involved in or supporting STVM's engineering programs please contact Bob Engels at

Advisor: Mr. Bob Engels