UM-Dearborn’s student rocket team has only been around since 2015, but its members are already racking up the kinds of stories that will be the stuff of future club legend.
Post-launch rocket retrieval seems to be a reliable source for such stories. In 2018, group president Trent Bekker said three months passed before they were able to track down both pieces of the rocket they built that year, which separated (as planned) into two parts after it burned through its fuel. One section landed three miles away in someone’s backyard — after which the homeowner politely and promptly called the ‘if found, return to owner’ phone number Bekker had written in Sharpie marker on one of the fins. The front end was presumed lost — until a hunter stumbled across it in the woods and a past member of the team saw a post about it on Facebook. The craft’s flight data recorder even survived a run-in with some heavy logging equipment.
Two years back, the rocket chose an even more legendary crash down site: A sewage treatment pond near Muskegon — a fact that still didn’t deter Bekker and company from retrieving their craft when the county drained the pond for routine maintenance. “It was pretty gross, but surprisingly the rocket didn’t smell,” Bekker said. In fact, it’s in his apartment basement right now, wrapped tightly in tarps and plastic bags.
Stories of successful launches aside, what’s probably most remarkable about UM-Dearborn’s rocket team is the fact that it even exists at all. Unlike many of the university’s student engineering groups and clubs, which are understandably focused on the automotive arts, the rocket team doesn’t have the benefit of a corresponding academic degree program. Instead, the team seems to have materialized through sheer student interest, with some important nurturing along the way from a few faculty who have done actual work for NASA. That includes Professor Line van Nieuwstadt, who worked on the Sojourner Mars Rover; and CECS Dean Tony England, who was an Apollo astronaut.
Bekker, who has been a member of the group since its founding year, said building up the rocket team has been a slog at times. They barely survived their first year with enough members to still call themselves a club. And they’ve missed their goal of launching at the big Spaceport America Cup in New Mexico the past two years. This year, opting for a consolation launch in Muskegon — just to see how well their rocket works — is not an option: “We’ll absolutely have it done in time,” he said. With an active membership now numbering in the 30s, they’ve got a great shot.