Reflections on RASC-AL Forum 2018 posted in rascal

July 02, 2018

CSI’s RASC-AL mission has a long history–well, as long a history as possible in a three year-old club–of success. This was Columbia’s third year participating in RASC-AL, a NASA-sponsored aerospace engineering competition, and its third year advancing to the finals in Cocoa Beach, Florida. However, CSI’s legacy by no means guaranteed our success. We had to work hard to move from sitting in CSI’s interest meeting in September to standing in front of NASA, presenting our reusable hybrid-propulsion stage design. Our team has come far this year, and looking back at the past nine months, it’s been an incredible journey.

We were tasked with developing a reusable, refuelable in-space stage that utilized both an electric and a chemical engine, and could transport a payload from cis-lunar space to Mars orbit and back. The development of our Advanced Lunar-Mars Architecture, or ALMA, began with delegating subsystems to each team member. Everyone specialized in something, from thermal control to trajectory to communications. We spent first semester researching systems, conducting trade studies, and determining what technologies and techniques would benefit our design. We also took on the extra challenge of working with a group from the University of Minnesota, who provided ALMA’s refuelling architecture. Collaborating remotely with another school wasn’t easy, but the partnership was beneficial on both sides. Not only did our designs profit–working together saved money and added efficiency–but we learned a lot about effective communication and collaboration. The Columbia-UMN partnership was ultimately the only successful one in the competition, as we were the sole partnership that advanced to the finals. But before we could get there, we still had to perfect our own design.

As the spring semester arrived and our abstract, mid-project review, and final paper deadlines approached, we combined our individual research into a streamlined paper and presentation. With each successful submission, we developed our sections, adding more specifics and analysis as well as new considerations such as a budget and risk-mitigation. Finally, in April, we received the good news: we were going to NASA! After a year of preparation, it was thrilling to stand in front of the judges and present our design. Though there were some hiccups (notably, an outdated version of our presentation being displayed, necessitating some improvisation), the presentation went well. ALMA was largely well-received by the judges, but we were also given feedback to make our future designs even stronger. Next year, we plan to perform more in-depth analysis, go into more detail about our development and testing processes, and reevaluate our risk mitigation process.

We were the second of fourteen teams to present, so the pressure was off for the rest of the week. We spent lots of time on the beach, hanging out with each other and getting to know the other teams. The trip culminated in a tour of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where we saw the Space Station Processing Facility, Swampworks, and the Saturn V center. The combination of doing cool space stuff and hanging out in Florida created one amazing week. The technical experience and the opportunities provided were absolutely invaluable, especially for a group made up of freshmen and sophomores, but arguably just as incredible was the RASC-AL group itself. I’ve never been part of any project with such a tight-knit team. Thanks to game nights, volleyball matches, and one memorably disastrous baking attempt, we all became friends early in the year and only got closer as the months progressed. The only thing better than going to Florida to talk to NASA was doing so with five of my good friends.

Back in September, many of us joined RASC-AL with no idea where to begin. It was sometimes overwhelming to realize how much I had to learn. But at the end of the day, every research dead-end, long day in Mudd, and logistical challenge was worth it. Reflection on our success is especially significant considering the academic composition of our group. We come from all four undergraduate schools and have majors ranging from mechanical engineering to English. It was inspiring to see people from such different academic backgrounds come together to create something. Of course, there’s always room for improvement. Next year, we’ll reflect on the judges’ feedback and our conversations with other schools as we take on another RASC-AL challenge, and our team leads are writing a post-mortem to determine what can be done better next time. All in all, participating in RASC-AL was absolutely one of the highlights of my year, and I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

– Cleo Payne

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