AFRL supports biggest amateur rocket ever

By Jeanne Dailey 

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate supported mechanical engineering students from the University of New Mexico during preparations to launch the world’s largest amateur rocket May 27 in Rio Rancho.

With the rocket measuring 48 feet tall, the only structure capable of housing it for dress rehearsals of the “integrate, erect and launch” process was Hangar 760 on Kirtland Air Force Base. AFRL provided use of the hangar via a strategic education partnership agreement signed by AFRL’s Directed Energy and Space Vehicles directors and UNM’s president last year.

The students determined to build a two-thirds replica of the historic PGM-11 Redstone rocket, a relic of the Cold War and the first missile to carry a live nuclear warhead. Although the original Redstone weighed 62,000 pounds and produced 83,000 pounds of thrust, the UNM rocket weighed 260 pounds with a thrust just under 2,000 pounds.

Over the course of the spring semester, 20 members of the UNM Rocket Engineering Team instructed by Fernando “Doc” Aguilar, a UNM adjunct faculty member and retired Air Force officer, designed and built the rocket. The students managed the senior design project along the same model as an Air Force acquisition program

Unofficially named “Lobo Launch” by the students, the rocket was to achieve a velocity of 200 mph and an altitude of 3,000 feet before releasing a UNM-developed miniature satellite. However, due to the failure of one fin, the rocket broke up at 300 feet.

“Despite the flight malfunction, the students gained tremendous experience during the months-long immersion in all facets of system design, acquisition, fabrication and launch operations,” Aguilar said.

Avery Lopez, one of the students who helped build the rocket, also saw the launch as a learning experience.

“It wasn’t what we anticipated, but the fact is we launched,” Lopez said. “That’s a feat in and of itself for UNM.”