Buckeye rocketry team lands top finish at NASA student competition

Posted: June 29, 2021

Ahead of the 2021 NASA Student Launch Competition, members of the Buckeye Space Launch Initiative (BSLI) found themselves, like many other student organizations over the last year, preparing for a virtual competition.

Deputy project manager Mohammed Oumer was able to attend the competition's final webinar session. When the awards were announced, Oumer was first to learn that the Ohio State team had won the Experimental Design Award for their payload design.

“I didn’t think I heard it correctly,” Oumer said.

Soon after, it was announced that Ohio State also placed third overall in the completion’s design division. Oumer texted team project manager, Ryan McElvein, to make sure he’d heard everything correctly. He had.

The Buckeye Space Launch Initiative is an interdisciplinary group of students focused on space-flight and rocketry. With a roster of nearly 70 students, BSLI divides itself between three teams.

One team focuses on the Spaceport America Cup, a competition where teams launch rockets seeking altitudes of either 10,000 or 30,000 feet. A second team, the liquids team, is aimed at the goal of designing a fully functional liquid engine, purely for BSLI’s own research interest. And the third team is the NASA team, focused on the recent NASA Student Launch Competition.

BSLI NASA team in workshop
BSLI team members constructing the payload

“NASA’s competition is payload-based,” said Olivia Langenderfer, deputy project manager for the NASA Student Launch Competition last year and again this year. “That pretty much sums it up.”

The goal of the NASA student launch was to send a rocket with a payload up to an altitude between 3,500 and 6,500 feet, deploying the payload upon descent.

“This year the payload was a little lander,” McElvein said.

Estimating its size with his hands, McElvein described the lander as around six-inches in diameter, and built to land with its own separate parachute. Once on the ground, it was designed to self-level and take a panoramic photo.

“Think kind of like a miniature Mars lander without any wheels,” said McElvein.

The NASA Student Launch Competition is normally held in Huntsville, Alabama. However, to avoid gathering for a physical launch amid the COVID pandemic, NASA adapted the competition.

About halfway through the competition cycle, NASA divided the launch competition into two sections: the launch division, and the design division.

The launch division was the category for teams to do just that, build and launch a rocket. Teams in this division flew their rockets at their homefields, where they record data that was then sent to the NASA judges.

Teams in the design division, in which BSLI competed, were judged on the design of their payload. They were not required to build a rocket.

“We did anyway,” McElvein said.

After being relegated to meetings over Zoom, the team was eager to jump at the chance to build their rocket, even if it wasn’t necessary for the competition. Oumer said he felt relief from the moment BSLI began building their rocket.

“We thought ‘finally we get some sort of real teamwork in a student activity that should be filled with other teammates and actual collaboration,’” Oumer said. “It was very, very exciting.”

That excitement only grew when the team found out they’d placed third in their division, and also received the Experimental Design Award for the most creative and innovative payload design that maximized safety and scientific value. The finish that came as somewhat of a surprise to the team.

NASA competition payload design diagram
Diagram of the payload design

“This is our second year in the competition,” McElvein said. “Placing podium wasn’t expected, frankly, and I’m really proud of us.”

Oumer said that just reaching the competition was a victory in itself.

“To get through the entire competition in a year that was as hectic as this year was, we saw a finish as an absolute win,” said Oumer.

For Langenderfer, who has been with BSLI’s NASA competition team for both years, the good news was more than welcome.

“I was so happy. It’s been a rough year for everybody on the team,” Langenderfer said. “So to have something like that at the end, it feels great. I’m very happy that we can all share in that.”

The team described their finish as a culmination of all their hard work. But they aren’t done yet.

“This is definitely going to push us to do even better next year,” Langenderfer said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to go down to Huntsville to compete like we want to, and launch.”

Langenderfer will take on the role of vice president of the Buckeye Space Launch Initiative next year. While she will be splitting much of her time between the different teams within BSLI, she plans to help with the NASA project as much as she can.

McElvin and Oumer will reprise their roles as project manager, and deputy project manager, respectively. And with a podium finish under their belts, their goal was clear.

“We’ll be going for first place,” Oumer said.

by Sam Cejda, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Categories: StudentsAwards
Tag: space