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Notre Dame Rocket Team Reaches New Heights

AUTHOR: Nina Welding

PUBLISHED: June 19, 2018

The Notre Dame Rocket Team (NDRT) received the Altitude Award in 2017 from NASA Marshall Space Flight Center as it set a competition record for a student team – reaching an altitude of 5,287 ft. and achieving the closest apogee to 5,280 ft. This year the NDRT earned the highest scores in the team’s history to place in the Top 10 of NASA’s 2018 Student Launch competition in Huntsville, Ala., and received its first ever perfect score on presentation professionalism.

An annual competition, the Student Launch asks teams to design and build a reusable rocket that will fly 1 mile (5,280 ft.) in altitude, deploy a recovery system and then safely return to the ground while also carrying a payload of scientific or engineering value. The NDRT has participated in the competition for the last eight years, but this year the team reached new heights before and during the competition.

According to Monica Ochoa, team captain and three-year NDRT veteran, the team more than doubled its list of active members this year. Now over 70-members strong, NDRT also became a more diversified team. “Most of our members were from the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering,” said Ochoa, “but we’ve added electrical engineering, computing engineering, computing science and physics majors to the team. That’s one of the unique aspects of NDRT … that we allow anyone to join regardless of experience, class year or major. As long as he or she is interested in rocketry and willing to learn, they are welcome.”

Not all NDRT members travelled to Huntsville. Those participating in the actual “Student Launch” were Alexandra Altobelli, Vinolin Anbalagan, Alexandra Buch, James Cole, Patrick Danielson, Jakob Dodd, Eric Dollinger, Collette Gillaspie, Joseph Gonzales, Madision Hetlage, John Hoeksema, Caleb Mattson, Ryan McKeown, Shannon Meyer, George Porter, John Speier, Christopher St. George, Robert Stiller, Joseph Sutton, Davis Whitson and Erik Woods. They were accompanied by their graduate student adviser Emma Farnan.

Another team accomplishment was financing. Over a year ago NDRT began reaching out to companies such as Boeing, Textron and others to support the team’s design and development efforts, as well as their educational outreach efforts. Today, the NDRT is completely self-sufficient, not receiving funds from the University but through corporate sponsorships.

During the competition the NDRT also received the Educational Outreach Award, for teaching more than 2,000 local school children about rocketry and career opportunities in STEM.

The impact of NDRT, however, does not stop with the competition itself or with outreach efforts. Ochoa, who is returning to Huntsville to work as a mechanical systems design and analysis engineer in Boeing’s Defense and Space Systems Division, calls her experience on the team life-changing. “Going into my sophomore year,” she says, “I was strongly considering switching out of engineering. But once I joined the team, I found my passion. The students on the team were wonderful intelligent people, and everyone was always willing to help younger team members. Attending the competition and participating in all the design reports and presentations over the years were superb technical experiences and gave me a lot to talk about in interviews. While in Huntsville for the competition, the tours of the Space Flight Center were also great motivation to keep me pushing toward my goal of working on NASA’s Space Launch System. I am 100% confident that my experience on NDRT was a huge reason I got my dream job right out of college, and I can't wait to see how the team does next year!”

Danielson, a rising senior majoring in aerospace engineering, echoes Ochoa’s excitement for NDRT in the coming year. It will be his fourth year on the team, and he will be serving as team captain. “This year was our best performance, but we want to achieve even more — place in the Top 3, improve our design review scores and win multiple team awards. However,” he says, “the most important aspect of the NDRT is that we continue to offer the same opportunities to future underclassmen that we experienced, so they can grow as engineers too and find their passion.”