It’s Just Rocket Science
Ian Morgan | February 27, 2023
In November 2022, NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft launched with 730,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and over two million pounds of solid propellant. It was the first time in 50 years that a United States spacecraft has been sent to the Moon. Needless to say, it is a thrilling time for the space industry.
It’s not only a thrilling time for the space industry, however. At Vanderbilt, Professor A.V. Anilkumar and the Aerospace Design Laboratory are playing a part in preparing the next generation of engineers who will pave the way to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Professor A. V. Anilkumar and NASA
Professor Anilkumar (pictured above) earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology. His graduate studies focused on experimental high speed gas flow. His work centered around the design of a shock tube, an experimental test facility used to rapidly pressurize and depressurize compressed air and generate shock waves. The research conducted using these apparati hold numerous applications in aerospace and other fields. However, Anilkumar explained that his passion for space science and research truly took off after his Ph.D., when he had the opportunity to develop experiments for both NASA’s Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.
The projects that Professor Anilkumar worked on included the Pore Formation and Mobility Investigation (PFMI) and the In Space Soldering Investigation (ISSI). These projects studied the effect of microgravity on soldering and the melting process of metals, respectively. On Earth, convection normally causes gas bubbles to rise to the surface and separate from the molten metal they originate in. In the absence of gravity, however, these bubbles remain in the substance and can weaken the material. Understanding how these processes unfold is crucial for developing in-space manufacturing capabilities that will enable humans to reach Mars and beyond. Anilkumar enjoys researching these complex problems, something he refers to as “fundamental physics with an engineering framework,” and he has continued his work in microgravity fluid physics and materials processing as a professor here at Vanderbilt.
The birth of the Vanderbilt Aerospace Design Laboratory
When asked about what prompted him to create the Vanderbilt Aerospace Design Laboratory (VADL) in 2008, Dr. Anilkumar stated that it was a “cosmic coincidence of things all coming together.”
First, despite the school’s close proximity to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and it being home to a highly-regarded engineering program, Vanderbilt does not have a formal aerospace engineering degree. Second, while Anilkumar greatly enjoyed designing experiments for NASA, he realized that the high-stakes nature of the work precludes student involvement. Finally, the space industry at the time was witnessing the rise of private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, that were both figuratively and literally pushing the boundary of what was thought possible for non-government entities. All these factors inspired Anilkumar to establish Vanderbilt’s first formal aerospace laboratory. “And the rest is history,” he proudly added.
And a stellar history it has been. Since its inception in 2008, VADL has won the NASA Student Launch competition a whopping seven times, with numerous caption awards for rocket and payload design, project review, educational engagement, and more. Anilkumar’s philosophy is simple: “Failure is not an option.” He noted that he does not believe in the old adage – “build it and they will come.” Instead, he likes to say, “challenge them, and they will come and build it.”
“My role is to challenge students, to identify problems and solutions that are manageable within a given framework, and to select students who are very ambitious”, he says. These students, who Anikumar affectionately refers to as “space cadets,” are some of the brightest mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering students here at Vanderbilt.
VADL and NASA
This year’s NASA challenge is to launch a rocket that, upon landing, can reorient itself so that its payload can be deployed via a telescoping arm. The payload must then receive and process a series of Radio Frequency (RF) commands (specified frequencies that power electronic devices such as radios, phones, and televisions) that can instruct the onboard camera to perform certain tasks.
Anilkumar describes these NASA projects to be true systems engineering challenges, ones that require contributions from students with mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering knowledge. There is truly no margin for error: this year’s mission contains roughly 60 unique points of failure. Any one of these points of failure could spell doom on launch day. On top of that, the VADL team has self-imposed an additional mission objective.
“We have always asked ourselves: can we do more?” Anilkumar states. The “plus portion,” as he calls it, for this year entails a set of auxiliary fins that, during flight, will tilt on command, completely altering the drag profile of the rocket and allowing it to achieve its target apogee with significantly greater precision. This is a truly novel concept at the university level and a prime example of what Anilkumar describes as “whiteboard to execution”, the arduous but rewarding process of taking an idea all the way from its conception to reality.
When asked about what advice he has for students interested in joining VADL, Anilkumar mentioned the importance of machining and workshop skills, internship and project experience, and an ability to work well with others. The most essential attribute, though, is for prospective members to manage their academics and “plus plus”, referring to the significant time commitment required of the project.
“We have a big legacy to uphold,” he explained. Those who are deemed up for the challenge, however, will get to join a storied program. VADL has produced around 100 alumni, many of whom have gone on to work in the space industry for both new and established companies. Anilkumar noted, “the real drivers are the students.” As this year’s team prepares for competition later this spring, they will seek to continue VADL’s tradition of success and carry on the legacy that Anilkumar has built.
NASA – In Space Soldering Investigation (ISSI) fact sheet (09/03). www.nasa.gov. [accessed 2023 Feb 7]. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/news/background/facts/issi.html.