One day in his propulsion class, New Mexico State University aerospace engineering senior Sam Pedrotty had an idea for a new model rocket. That thought has since become a teaching tool in both engineering classes at the university and a Las Cruces high school.
“How much cooler would this course be if you could actually do something with this and it wasn’t just a bunch of equations on the board, if it wasn’t so intangible and we could actually use this and apply it,” Pedrotty said of how the concept for modular rockets first took shape.
Pedrotty took his model rocket idea to his aerospace professor, Chunpei Cai, who told him if he could deliver the rocket, Cai would write a proposal to get funding and use it in his class next fall. Cai said he has been thinking about how to improve teaching propulsion more effectively for a while.
“Propulsion is one of the most challenging to our students; there are several hundreds of equations in our textbooks and students can easily get bored and lost,” Cai said. “His model rocket can be very helpful for the teaching of AE 419 Propulsion, one of the major courses for the aerospace engineering. It can be a very good capstone project, for example, to design, manufacture and optimize a small rocket.”
Pedrotty said at the undergraduate level in the College of Engineering, his project could add an important component to aerospace courses. Students can be responsible for every dimension and characteristic of the rocket. He said it allows students to accomplish different objectives, and could be taken a step farther by putting electronics in the rockets. He is currently working on a model rocket that has an active control system, so that the rocket could steer itself.
Pedrotty has since reached out to high school teachers in the Las Cruces area and his model rockets are being used at Mayfield High School.
The typical model rocket takes considerable time and precision when putting it together and also takes time to repair, according to Pedrotty. His rocket saves time by having big pieces that screw together, each with a different function.
“When you assemble them in a different order, you get different things.”
Pedrotty said once students put the rocket parts together, they can hypothesize about what they think will happen to the rocket in flight and then fly the rockets to see if their hypotheses are correct.
Pedrotty said he wants to expose as many students as he can to rockets to make science more exciting and so his rockets can become more popular.
“It’d be awesome if they were as known and like as common as a Barbie.”
“There’s been a lot of excitement and there’s been a lot of positive feedback. It seems like people really want to move forward with this,” Pedrotty said. Although he is excited about the project, he now has to figure out how to manufacture the large number of parts in a short time.
The Aggie Innovation Space at NMSU’s College of Engineering has helped him with this project. The space is equipped with 3-D printers, an electronics station, programmable development boards, robotics kits, software and low-resolution prototype materials.
“The 3-D printers are huge and are the backbone of where I am right now,” he said.
Pedrotty said that the Aggie Innovation Space has also helped him make connections with Arrowhead Center and Studio G. In addition to working with Studio G, he is also working with NMSU’s College of Education on developing the curriculum.
“It’s all a giant web that starts with the innovation space,” he said.
He said he would like to expand the project to high schools in Albuquerque and El Paso, but has no solid plans for that yet. He has had interest from groups locally and a nonprofit group in Texas would like to see it implemented in places there.
“It’s kind of exploding and it’s really cool,” he said.
In July, Pedrotty will begin working full time at Johnson Space Center in the Autonomous Flight Systems branch, but says his rocket project will continue.
“I’ve also started talking to them about educational programs and opportunities and they sound very positive and supportive of it as well,” he said.
Pedrotty doesn’t remember what motivated him to go into aerospace engineering.
“It’s one of those lifelong passions,” Pedrotty said. “My parent’s favorite joke is that I knew I wanted to be an aerospace engineer as soon as I could say the word.”
“He is very self-motivated, with very original ideas, and excellent in many other aspects,” Cai said. “His project will have long-term impacts on the teaching of propulsion. I am very proud of him, and expect he will flourish in his future career.”
Pedrotty grew up in Albuquerque and graduated from Albuquerque High School. While at NMSU, Pedrotty has had two internships at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. In 2012, he had his first internship with NASA and returned last January as a co-op.
At NASA he said he started thinking about the rocket project when he heard people talking about the great things they accomplished in their early 20s.
“It was really an eye opener. You don’t have to wait to start moving forward on big projects,” Pedrotty said. “You don’t have to wait until you’re 40 to change the world or anything, you can go forward and do that right now.”