June 14, 2023
SINGAPORE – A team of Singapore university students who won third place in an international rocket-building competition almost had to pull out of the contest at the last minute because key parts of its rocket, including the engine, were held up at the United States Customs.
But after much scrambling and a heap of luck, the team was able to scrounge used parts and a spare motor from the organisers and participating teams.
Pulling in long hours on June 2 and 3 to put together a new rocket, while enduring the harsh conditions in California’s Mojave Desert, the team managed to launch its 3m rocket on June 4 at the Friends of Amateur Rocketry competition.
The rocketry team from the non-profit group Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (Seds) Singapore is only the second local civilian group to launch a rocket, after a commercial rocket firm.
Carrying the safer two-thirds of the rocket in their suitcases, the eight team members from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) arrived at the Mojave Desert on June 2. There, they waited for the engine and base of the rocket to be shipped over.
They later learnt that the engine – the heart of their rocket – and the lower airframe had been held up at the US Customs due to an administrative conflict with the courier.
The team’s leader, Mr Dhruv Mittal, 25, rushed to Los Angeles International Airport while the rest scrambled for a plan B.
“Pulling out of the competition was not an option for us because of the expenses, effort and two years that was put into the trip. It was unacceptable to have no solution,” said Mr Mittal, a robotics engineer and SUTD graduate.
Seds Singapore’s rocketry team comprises 45 university students and graduates who worked on the rocket for about three years. They raised more than $30,000 to build and test the rocket, with funds coming from the Office for Space Technology and Industry, and Singapore rocket and space launch company Equatorial Space, which also provided lab space and help with hardware selection and launch procedures.
At the rocketry site in the US, the team members managed to find the remains of an old rocket to serve as an airframe. They also bought a traditional solid-fuel motor that the organisers managed to find. The members had been working with hybrid engines, so they had to adapt to whatever they had, build an igniter for the rocket, and use new ground-support equipment suitable for solid-fuel engines.
The team, named Singapore Propulsion Lab, worked round the clock to get its rocket ready for June 4, the last day of the competition.
The team members had also arrived in the US not feeling their best as many were fatigued from juggling school, work and preparing for the competition. The dry and cold desert environment did not help, as they managed to get just a little sleep in a car and their workbenches, with spiders and flies bothering them.
Half the team fell ill during the competition. NTU final-year student Hong Jin Hao, 24, developed a bacterial infection and was still recovering when he spoke to The Straits Times from Arizona on Tuesday.
“I felt really sick from the afternoon of June 3. I had a fever and my throat was hurting very badly. I just finished my antibiotics dose,” said the aerospace engineering student and the team’s aerostructures lead.
Once the team’s completed rocket was hoisted onto the launchpad on June 4, Mr Mittal feared that it would fail to ignite. With little expectation, the team stood behind the safety bunkers and launched the rocket.
The slim red-and-white rocket named Project Mynah soared close to a height of 3.2km, reaching the competition’s desired altitude.
“It was surprising to us that we reached the altitude. We were already mind-blown by the fact that the rocket even flew straight,” said Mr Mittal. “We were shocked because we rigged something last minute. We changed the rocket’s entire flight profile.”
When it was announced that the team had taken third place, its members could only laugh.
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona came in first, followed by the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan.
The incident at US Customs was not the first time the team has had a scare over rocket components. In 2022, it had to withdraw from the Spaceport America Cup because its novel hybrid engine, designed by Equatorial Space, had not been certified yet. It had to import a commercial hybrid motor from the US.
The team also had to navigate the regulatory landscape in Singapore, said Mr Hong. Since the use of gunpowder and pyrotechnics are restricted here, it had to switch to carbon dioxide canisters to release the rocket’s parachute needed for landing.
And since Singapore does not have a launch site, it had to test its motor at a propulsion lab in Malaysia.
The team plans to build a more advanced rocket for the 2024 Spaceport America Cup.