Countdown

This story was originally published by Stanford Magazine.

Within two years of its founding, Stanford Space Initiative became the largest project-based student group on campus. Now its members are trying to put a rocket into space.

Holed up in an underground bunker in the middle of the desert, Charles Cox was getting nervous.

A solidly built, dark-haired Stanford senior, Cox stood before a metal box whose face contained a key port, two lights and a red button. A length of gray wire ran out its back; at the other end was an aluminum tube, 5 feet long and as thick as his neck, packed with explosive charges and more than 30 pounds of rocket fuel.

The Mojave sun glared down at the tube; the air around it seemed to shimmer. Cox studied it from the open window of his bunker, a reinforced concrete box mostly buried in a dry lakebed, so that only his head was exposed above the dirt. Hundreds of man-hours, late-night design sessions, early-morning tests, and the combined efforts of 25 student engineers and their mentors had all led to this moment.

A range safety officer with him in the bunker gave the “all clear” over a P.A. system, and Cox inserted his key into the box. As he turned it, one of the control’s lights glowed red, and the officer began to count down from 10.

*

As a leader of Stanford Student Space Initiative’s rockets team, Cox got to do the honors just before the end of spring quarter for the static fire test of Lightning, the team’s first full-size rocket engine. The test, which basically amounted to strapping down the engine and igniting it to make sure it could withstand the extreme internal pressure of a launch, was the latest phase of an ambitious multiyear rocket project. Over the course of the next academic year, the team plans to add a second, larger engine called Thunder. The two engines should propel their 12-foot rocket past the Kármán line, the 100 km upper boundary of Earth’s atmosphere. If successful, they’ll be the first university-affiliated group to put a rocket into space.

But Stanford Student Space Initiative (SSI) isn’t just a rocketry club. In early 2013, aeronautics and astronautics major David Gerson, ’14, MS ’14, founded SSI as a student group that would organize speaker events and provide an intellectual community for undergraduate students who were passionate about space. Stanford’s aeronautics and astronautics program was composed primarily of graduate students and Gerson suspected there was an unmet need for a place for cosmic-minded undergrads to come together.

Two years and 120 active members later, SSI leaders say theirs is the largest project-based group on campus.

“A lot of groups say, ‘We’re an engineering group,’ whether it’s robotics club, solar car project or things like that,” explains Kirill Safin, ’18, SSI’s chief marketing officer. “We don’t want to be an engineering group. We want to be the space group. So when we say project-based, the reason we use that terminology is because we want the focus to be individual projects related to space, whether that’s a satellite project, a conference project, a policy project, a rocket project. . . . Some are technical, some are nontechnical, but they’re all about space.”

Members can choose between five teams, each of which manages its own projects. In addition to rockets, technically inclined students can work on a high-altitude balloons team, which is building an autonomous control system to float a latex balloon around the globe, and in the process creating a cheap platform for scientists to conduct experiments tens of thousands of feet up in the atmosphere. SSI also has a satellites team that works on the design and production of cubesats — primitive satellites that carry out a basic function, like photographing Earth in 1080p (though this development remains nascent, pending the group’s ability to put objects into space).

This past May, SSI’s Balloons Team debuted an autonomous control system for latex high altitude balloons, the first of its kind. Photo courtesy of SSI.

Over the past year, SSI has also broadened its scope to include a greater cross section of the academy. Nonengineers can work for the operations team, SSI’s original core group, which produces events like workshops, conferences and lectures. Last winter, SSI hosted a NASA conference on campus for the public to learn about scientific research on the International Space Station. Students can also join the space policy team, whose goal is to leverage SSI’s contacts at places like NASA, SpaceX and the European Space Agency to create a student-led course on space policy. Eventually, the team hopes to develop policy recommendations for Capitol Hill.

All this activity puts SSI near the forefront of the recent space revolution, which has been led in large part by organizations like SpaceX, the California-based company that has made headlines over the years for being the first private group to launch and recover a spacecraft from orbit, and then to dock at the International Space Station. (SSI has become something of a feeder into SpaceX; several of its members have gone on to full-time jobs there, and Christopher May, ’16, leader of the rocket and computer systems half of the rockets team, jokes that he may be the only SSI engineer interning elsewhere this summer.) But while SpaceX and other companies have reintroduced a certain cool factor to space that may attract millennial engineers, massive NASA budget cuts and public opinion polls from the last few years suggest that many Americans would prefer to see the talent and money used to address more local problems — as in, ones on Earth. That poses a somewhat existential question to SSI’s leaders as they sort out what to do with their lives: Why space?

May and Safin say that space research and development will yield a variety of practical benefits to society, from new consumer technologies to more futuristic benefits like the ability to mine asteroids for precious metals. For May, space as a career path presents some of the most complex and fascinating professional challenges imaginable. Rockets alone are so complicated, he says, “you could never get bored.”

 
Cox at a 2013 rocket launch in the southern California desert. Photo courtesy of Cox.

Cox, whose uncle is an astronaut, feels the romantic draw of space exploration perhaps more than the other SSI leaders. He recalls his sense of awe as a child watching NASA shuttle launches in the pre-dawn dark, knowing his uncle was among the astronauts aboard blasting off into the sky. Those experiences informed some of his earliest impressions about space, and now, the professional path he’s chosen. “I think human beings are natural explorers,” he explains. “We’re sort of born too late to explore this world, and maybe too soon to explore the next, but in the meantime our challenge is to push ourselves further along the way.”

*

The universe and its infinite possibilities were far from Cox’s mind, however, as he sweated in that desert bunker, listening to the range officer count backward from 10. He was trying with limited success not to think about the time invested in the test that was about to take place, or the thousands of dollars spent on materials, or the six-hour drive to the desert. Or the student rocket group at Boston University, whose engine had exploded during the group’s static fire test less than a month before.

. . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .

Before the officer could finish saying “ignition,” Cox jammed down the red button. The control’s second light glowed green as it shot a current of electricity across the lakebed and into the rocket. A 10-foot column of flame and white-hot gas erupted out the back. Cox could feel its roar in his chest, even from a few hundred yards away.

Six seconds later, with the rocket fuel burned up, the rest of the team let out a whoop from their bunkers, and a wave of relief swept over Cox. In videos of the test, you can hear the range officer come back over the P.A. He sounds almost giddy as he announces: “And that, gentlemen, is how we do that.”