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Aiming Higher

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In the 20th century, the path to the moon was blazed not by massive government programs but by students tinkering with rockets in Berlin, Germany, and Worcester, Massachusetts. There, inside modest garages and sheds, the age-old vision of interplanetary travel began the transition from a flight of fancy to actual flight. 

Today, the trail-blazers of 21st-century aerospace are likewise translating classroom lessons into thrilling demonstrations of aerospace engineering.

Honors students Conor Cullinane and Matthew Kane combined their childhood interest in model rockets with the advanced science and technical skills they learned at Clarkson to design and build a seven-foot-tall, 5 1/2-inch wide rocket equipped with a parachute, onboard cameras and a sophisticated global positioning device.

The year-long project required hundreds of hours of work in the lab. The pair was helped by fellow members of Clarkson’s roCKeT Division, a student organization founded by Cullinane and Kane as part of Clarkson’s applied aerodynamics lab.

“We wanted to transform an existing rocket club hobby group into a true applied engineering group,” explains Cullinane. “We had the will to succeed and realized we could take the club and the project to a whole new level.”

The team designed an internal control system to guide the rocket after launch and auto-correct it if it went off course.

“To finance the project we raised money through student organizations and departments,” says Kane. “We also worked with the dean of Arts & Sciences [Peter Turner] to develop a STEM K-12 outreach component for our project.”

After getting FAA approval, the rocket was readied for launch on April 25. Middle and high school students from two nearby schools were bused to Clarkson while community members turned out to watch the launch.

It took less than two seconds for the 24-pound rocket to lift off before reaching nearly a half mile in altitude at a speed close to 350 miles per hour. The flight was cut short by a parachute malfunction. Still, the student aerospace engineers and the crowd of onlookers were awed by the rocket’s speed, power and trajectory.

Cullinane says he hopes the experience will prompt local students to pursue a STEM discipline in college and beyond. “We wanted to share our passion for rocketry with young people who may not have had the opportunity to see this type of work before. They can see what’s possible if you dream big.”

That passion was also encouraged by their advisor Associate Professor of Aeronautical Engineering Ken Visser who saw the project as a great learning opportunity. “This is the kind of innovation I think Clarkson does a great job of fostering. It’s also an opportunity for these students to gain insight into what it means to be an aeronautical engineer.”

Designing and building such a rocket also gives the two invaluable experience as they prepare for graduate school in the fall — for Cullinane a Ph.D. program in bioastronautics through MIT and Harvard Medical School and for Kane a Ph.D. program in aerospace engineering at the University of Notre Dame.

"Most undergraduates," Cullinane says, "don't even get the chance to have the opportunities we had at Clarkson."

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Engineering majors Nathan Torkaman, Conor Cullinane, Matthew Kane and Elijah Kapas.