In September 2019 the TU Wien Space team travelled with two rockets to the US to break the altitude record of student teams. Having the rockets “The Hound 1” and “The Hound 2” with them the goal was clear: Crossing the border to outer space.
Lots of student teams tried to reach this magical border, but until now only the Team of University of Southern California has been successful.
Read what happened during this year’s attempt in Nevada:
On Monday, September 16th 2019, 13 members of the TU Wien Space Team travelled to Reno, Nevada, to prepare for the launch of The Hound 2 and once again for the launch of The Hound 1. The goal: the European altitude record for student clubs.
We moved into our temporary base, a suburb house with five bedrooms, three bathrooms, an eat-in kitchen and – loved by everyone – a chill-out-area including a pool table. Soon we agreed on the name: Space Team Mansion.
Our thirst for action was dampened when we got to know that our motors, despite the supplier’s promise to be around the whole week, would not be ready before Wednesday evening. The result was that we could not work on a big part of our rocket we would have liked having managed before leaving for the desert.
The electronics department on the other hand faced loads of work: The ground stations were prepared, the electronics were checked if they managed the journey unharmed and the software wanted to be optimized. The whole team helped wherever help was needed and the idly ones went grocery shopping, cooked dinner or (in very rare cases) played a game of pool billard.
Our culinary highlight and without doubt the masterpiece of the twelve chefs was the self-made roast pork with bread dumplings on Tuesday evening.
On Wednesday the outlook for the weekend darkened. Of the two N5800 motors we ordered, only one was available and additionally not before Friday. Our plan to start on Friday had therefore to be cancelled.
Early on Thursday morning a group of three team members set out to place the autonomous ground stations in the mountains of Black Rock Desert.
The rest got on their way to Gerlach, the last piece of civilisation on the edge of the desert, shortly afterwards. Low hanging clouds and recurrent rain during the drive depressed the mood and we doubted that we would be able to enter the desert at all. The sandy soil of the playa – a dry salt lake and the place where BALLS takes place – cannot be driven on when wet, not to mention trying it with heavy vehicles like our RVs. Nevertheless we decided to give it a try and found ourselves lucky that the moisture was just a superficial problem.
Arriving at the provisionally camp in sight of the famous Black Rock we started to group our four mobile homes to form our own small camp. We placed some seating accommodations in the “patio”, on the sides we hung up the Austrian flag and the banner of our sponsors and on top we improvised sun protection. Then we put our launch pad together and tried to finalise our rockets, except for the installation of the motors.
While more and more North-American rocket enthusiasts expanded the camp with their tents and motorhomes a rumor came to our ears which should soon be confirmed: The organizers of BALLS did not want to enter the desert due to the weather conditions. All rocket launches would suffer a delay, and the conditions on Friday morning should decide over the course of the event.
On Friday everything went smoother than thought, the organizers came to the desert and the official registration was done quickly. The rocket launches could begin!
… but there was something else! Yes, we still had not got hold of our rocket motors. We were degraded to mere viewers, but we could witness many impressive rocket launches and some no less spectacular failures.
We tried to put the additional time to some meaningful use, prepared for the launch on Saturday and rehearsed one of our innovations for “The Hound 2”: The Launch Procedure which is a detailed point by point procedure for the launch preparations.
In the late afternoon the bigger part of the Team drove to the famous hot springs at the foot of Black Rock and busied themselves with team-building-activities. On their return to the camp the other team members proudly presented the motors which had finally arrived. We started work straightway to be ready for final launch preparations at sunrise.
Finally we could try our record attempt! The awful cold which clasps the desert at night could not bother us: Full of energy we brought our launch pad into the away cell, one mile from the camp. While the sun got stronger and burned pitilessly down on us we carried the ready “The Hound 2” out to the playa. With high concentration we worked our way through the launch procedure and the excitement increased by the minute. The cameras were positioned, the liveticker provided with the latest information. Not for long and the TU Wien Space Team would go to space!
… and then the wiring caused problems. Implausible status values of two sensors caused an unplanned HOLD in the procedure. After a quick check at the site and the diagnosis of a broken cable we had to cancel the try and went back to the camp for some more work.
We changed the concerned cables, checked their functionality and after a quick lunch returned to the away cell. Once again we made our way through the launch procedure, the point of the last HOLD was passed quickly, the area was evacuated, the cameras were activated, the pulse rose, the remaining ones prepared for quick evacuation.
… and then the avionics caused some more problems. This time it was the radio link – it seemed as if the electronics worked properly and transmitted data, but could not receive any commands what was crucial during the launch procedure. We tried our best to solve the problem, but time was running out. Our autonomous ground stations in the mountains would shut down at 5pm to save energy. Even ground stations need some sleep.
Empty-handed we left the away cell and delayed the launch to Sunday, the last day of BALLS. Another launch of our second rocket “The Hound 1” was as well as impossible: Yet we prepared another booster-motor to have a second go, if like the year before the sustainer will not be ignited. After that a part of the team relaxed again in the hot springs and enjoyed the breathtaking starry sky and the unbelievable silence in the heart of the desert.
This time for real! Same procedure as every day. By this time the launch procedure had become some sort of routine for us, but the excitement was not reduced in the slightest. Everybody felt: Today is the day – now or never! The European record and maybe even the world record at our fingertips.
The project lead and head of electronics Christoph Fröhlich had come precautionary to the away cell and on short distance even the radio worked. Our guess that the moist desert soil had interfered with the connection seemed to be true.
All systems on GO, last updates for the liveticker at home, go for launch by the Launch Control Officer and then via the camp radio the uplifting words: “Heads up for the Austrian space shot!”
The booster stage ignited and “The Hound 2” strived towards the sky just like a line. Some small clouds made it hard to follow the rocket by the eye and soon the disillusionment came. The line of smoke high up in the sky which would have signalised the ignition of the sustainer failed to appear. The data we received even showed a worse course of the flight. Soon we lost the connection completely, the last GPS fix of the booster somewhere 6km above us, the sustainer according to a commercial GPS-module on the ground … this soon?
We set out immediately to see what our rocket looked like. Soon we saw that it looked badly.
Only the top and the upper part of the electronics remained, the lower part of the glass fibre segment was torn away completely and probably still connected with the motor casing which was nowhere to be seen.
Dejectedly we returned to the camp. Another launch attempt was not feasible and would not have been meaningful, as we did not know what caused all the troubles.
We ate lunch and divided the team: One group looked for the rocket around the place where we found the parts and another one set out for the mountains to retrieve the ground stations. The rest of the Team began packing up our camp and went back to Gerlach at nightfall.
The search party had one very small success: The interstage coupler was found, unharmed but with a torn parachute cord. Helplessness and lack of understanding for the course of our flight reigned at dinner at Bruno’s Restaurant in Gerlach, but the mood was good and some went packing their suitcases and others got together for a nightcap.
Eight people got up early in the morning and travelled home via Reno and San Francisco. The four remaining ones drove back into the desert with two cars to give the search another try. They searched more and more remote areas of the Black Rock Desert, but were not successful.
During these two days the two Jeeps covered more than 140km around the estimated landing site. But due to the unoverseeable area the chances to find anything were, however, quite low.
Thus the second attempt to break the European record for student clubs ended unsuccessful again for the TU Wien Space Team.
But we will stay strong and we will be back! When the technical evaluation and analysis of the data we have is finished there will also be a technical report, including an interpretation of the failure at the launch of “The Hound 2”.
We are excited even now for the moment next year when we will hear the words: “GO for launch for The Hound 3!”