UM-Dearborn’s student rocket team is becoming a career launchpad

January 18, 2019

Even without the benefit of an aerospace program, UM-Dearborn’s rocketeers are finding jobs and internships in the industry.

UM-Dearborn student rocket team launch

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.

UM-Dearborn student rocket team

Eric Ratts, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and the group’s faculty adviser, also thinks a successful 2019 launch is within reach.

“These student members are very close knit, are motivated and work very hard — which makes my role as the adviser easy,” Ratts said. “You have to thank Dean England and Professor Van Nieuwstadt for being strong supporters of the team, which gives the students this opportunity to pursue interests related to the aerospace industry.”

In fact, some past and current team members have been able to leverage their experience and land jobs and internships in the field. Without an actual degree in aeronautics, you’d think that would be tough. But three of the rocket team’s alum have interned at NASA, the group’s former president now works at defense giant Raytheon, and another former member did a stint at SpaceX.

In fact, later this month, Bekker is heading off for an internship at NASA himself, and he’s already accepted a post-graduation job with a local aeronautics company.

“For me, that was something I was worried about: I really, really wanted to work in aerospace, but I didn’t ever see how I was going to get there,” Bekker said. “This ended up being the way. And it’s not just the rocket team. Out of all the people I know who are graduating this semester, every single person who’s been on a student team has a job lined up. Employers want experience. They want to see that you can apply your knowledge and actually design, build and see something through. And this is a way to get that experience even before you leave campus.”

Read more about the team at their website: