A computer built by four Weber State College students will be part of equipment for the first totally commercial U.S. space launch, scheduled for Sept. 29 from Cape Canaveral.
E Prime Aerospace Corp., Titusville, Fla., will launch LOFT-1 from the Cape, with a number of experiments on board. They include two from universities, one from Morton Thiokol and the student-built computer.The rocket is 12 feet long and 6 inches in diameter and is expected to climb to 17,000 feet, after which the nose section will jettison and parachute into the Atlantic.
"The computer will activate an experiment performed by Morton Thiokol and take measurements of the flight," said Robert Twiggs, director of WSC's Center for Aerospace Technology.
WSC students Cathy Mildenberger, Clint Lewis, Ralph Butler and John Lund built the computer, designed to measure acceleration, altitude, temperature and stress experienced by the rocket.
Electronic components at the center of the project were supplied by QSI Corp., Logan, a space company. QSI hopes to sell a similar system to companies that ship sensitive high-technology equipment and need to monitor those shipments, said Lund, who was hired as a programmer at the Logan firm after the project began.
But Lund and the other students don't see the project as a business venture, but as a chance to get into space.
"We're excited to see how it does," Mildenberger said.
A year ago the students started out designing the small computer and programming the software. Originally the Florida firm had hoped for an October 1987 launch date, which gave the students just six weeks to complete the package.
Butler designed a plexiglass cylinder to house the small computer. The outside shell was no problem, he said, but figuring a way to keep the electronic equipment stable inside the cylinder was more of a challenge.
"I ended up pouring in foam. I got the three ingredients for the foam, blended them in my wife's blender and poured it in."
The padded container was vibrated in a paint shaker and it worked fine, Butler said.
"Talk about improvising," Twiggs noted.
The students sent the finished project to E Prime and prepared for the launch, but insurance problems forced a delay and the computer was returned to WSC.
"I was a little worried about the project until we got it back in the mail and found that everything was still working properly," Wildenberger explained.
Some minor modifications have been made on the package. For example, the students found that the foam stuck to wires in the computer. While it did not interfere with the current, it made a real mess.
This time before pouring in the foam, Butler said he is considering spraying the wires with a common spray-on frying pan coating.
"It should work because it's a hydrocarbon," he said.
A recent article in USA Today notes that the launch will not be a moneymaker for E Prime, but will, according to E Prime spokesman Murray Bailey, "blaze the trail we must follow from now on."
The launch will demonstrate that commercial space flights are possible at a much-reduced price.
"This is a little vehicle with a big mission," the article quoted Bailey as saying.
For the WSC students the launch is a chance to get into space.
" . . . Who knows if this works, we may even try building a rocket or two of our own and launch them in the west desert," Twiggs said.