USF Students Vie for a $1 Million Space Race Prize

The students at the University of South Florida are working to launch a rocket past the established boundary for outer space in order to earn a $1 million prize while also fostering greater interest in STEM fields.

by Christopher Spata, Tampa Bay Times / January 16, 2020
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(TNS) — University of South Florida students are locked in a race with a finish line in the sky.

They’re in a competition to launch a rocket past the Ka\u0301rma\u0301n Line. That’s 62 miles up, where the air thins to the point that a conventional aircraft can’t fly. It’s often considered the boundary of outer space. The first student-led, amateur team to cross it by Dec. 30, 2021 wins the Base 11 Space Challenge.

The contest’s goal, says Base 11, is to foster engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and create a more diverse pipeline the aerospace industry, which is facing a critical talent shortage due to impending retirements and the under-representation of women and minorities in the field.

The prize for the winning team is $1 million. The competition: University of Michigan, University of California Los Angeles and Purdue, among other universities with high-ranking academic programs in aerospace engineering.

USF doesn’t have an aerospace program. Javian Hernandez and Jackson Stephenson, president and vice president of the USF Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry, or SOAR, the student club for rocketry enthusiasts that’s entering the competition, study mechanical engineering. Other members major in physics or chemistry.

SOAR also doesn’t have a big budget or many donors. They don’t have the manufacturing capabilities of a full-on machine shop that many universities with an aerospace program have.

“Like these right here,” Hernandez, 21, said, pointing to some steel plates for a rocket’s frame. “Just to have them laser cut, or water jet cut, would take about two hours, but instead we had to take an angle grinder and work for like four or five days just to cut these.”

But they do have a dedicated group that loves shooting things into the sky.

“We’ve already been working on this project for a year and a half. You have to have a passion for it.”

Stephenson, 22, joined the club the second day of his freshman year. “I wanted to do aerospace engineering," he said, "but the schools were just too expensive, so I came to USF and I’ve done my best to kind of create an aerospace program through extracurricular activities.”

USF might be a longshot to win, but they’ve got exactly the right guy on their side. Professor of mathematics Manoug Manougian is the club’s faculty advisor and director of USF’s STEM Education Center.

He’s been called the “father of the Lebanese space program,” which might not mean much, until you consider he wasn’t some high-level government rocket scientist at the time. He was a 25-year-old math instructor at a tiny liberal arts college who brought together some student enthusiasts in 1960. They started from scratch and launched rockets into space at a time when few countries had done so.

It was a feat so outstanding at the time — the first rocket launched in the Middle East — that for a moment, all of Lebanon paid attention. Then other nations including the U.S. and Russia started watching, too. Lebanon even put one of their rockets on a postage stamp. And when it was over, it was like everyone forgot for 50 years.

Growing up in Jerusalem “when warring parties dominated the region,” Manougian found tranquility in science fiction. “I was fascinated with space, flying carpets and Jules Verne.”

As the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced plans for the moonshot, Manougian became a passionate follower of the real-life space race. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and was offered a position teaching math and physics at a newly-established school then known as Haigazian College in Beirut, Lebanon. The student body numbered about 200.

Because of his own interests, and in an effort engage his students in math, physics and chemistry, Manougian put up a flyer seeking members for a club that would become the Lebanese Rocket Society. He quickly found an enthusiastic group eager to launch rockets. “Being at the smallest college in one of the smallest countries in the Middle East," Manougian said, “did not phase us.”

They used spare pipes salvaged from local shops as rocket parts. The undergrads would be covered in powder, mixing chemicals themselves trying to find a suitable rocket fuel. They had little established information to go by, but they inched along, and after some early failures successfully launched Cedar I in 1961 and reached 1,000 meters. They followed it up with Cedar II, which went up 2,300 meters.

A sudden sensation, they were invited to meet with Lebanese president Fuad Chehab. They were given funding, access to military workshops and a launch site overlooking the Mediterranean Sea where they could send up rockets aimed in a direction that wouldn’t upset neighboring countries (though they did get complaints from Cyprus).

Newspapers covered their efforts, which became a point of national pride. One paper ran a political cartoon featuring caricatures of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President Kennedy standing next to large rockets. In between them stands a Lebanese general holding a tiny rocket, and offering to defeat the Russians for Kennedy. Crowds came to watch launches and celebrated their success in the streets.

Cedar III crossed the Ka\u0301rma\u0301n Line into outer space. The postage stamp featuring Cedar IV was released on Lebanese independence day in 1964. They made it to Cedar VIII before the program was shut down in 1967.

At 84, Manougian has an incredibly precise memory for the days of the Lebanese Rocket Society. In his USF office are black and white photos of him with students and various government officials standing near Cedar rockets, which grow in size and sophistication.

In one he poses with four men in suits who appear a little older than him at the time. “These two guys are CIA agents who started coming around,” Manougian said, pointing at the photo. “Later I showed them this photo and asked, ‘Who were those other two guys?’ ‘Oh, those are KGB agents,’ they told me."

The Lebanese Rocket Society got help from the military, and the program ended due to fears it would appear they were developing weapons. But Manougian says his group never once wavered from its first founding rule: Rockets are for space exploration and not for wars and killing.

After the rockets, Manougian returned to the U.S., finished a doctorate degree at the University of Texas and was eventually offered a job at USF. He knew nothing about the city, but he did remember one thing. In Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, the rocket blasts off from Tampa.

Manougian became a distinguished faculty member over the decades, and the story of the Lebanese Rocket Society "went into oblivion,” he said. It wasn’t like he talked about it. Not until more than 50 years had passed, when some filmmakers came across an old postage stamp and wondered, why would a Lebanese stamp have a photo of a rocket? Their documentary The Lebanese Rocket Society featuring Manougian was released in 2011. People at USF heard the story for the first time. It made sense that USF’s rocket club asked Manougian to be their mentor and advisor.

USF’s SOAR club has its work cut out. The Base 11 rules require that the rocket that crosses the Karman Line be single-stage and liquid-fueled. No amateur club has ever come close to such a feat. SOAR hit a milestone in 2019 with the launch of Taurus I, it’s first multi-stage rocket, which set a club record by reaching 11,168 feet. The club’s president at the time was Stephanie Bauman, who has since graduated and gone on to a graduate program at Oxford University.

The Base 11 competition, which stretches into 2021, will be a significantly bigger challenge.

Manougian isn’t involved with the engineering of the rockets that SOAR develops. That’s all the students. His role, he says, is to support the program, help them promote and secure funding. But he is an inspiring presence.

On a recent afternoon he watched the club performed a injector flow test. Mrudit Trivedi, the club’s chief of rocketry, checked different nozzles and settings on a checklist and Stephenson hit the button. Water sprayed out from the spot where soon, hopefully, a flame will shoot from the engine. The test went well. Manougian sat quietly nodding in approval.

It was a small step forward into uncharted territory for the club. They have a long way to go, but SOAR has already given their rocket a name: Cedar IX.

©2020 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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