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Putting the Emerging Commercial Sub-orbital Industry to Work for Engineering Education

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Aerospace Technical Session 3

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1287.1 - 26.1287.13



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Paper Authors


Steven H. Collicott Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Professor Collicott has led the proposing, design, and construction of 32 low-gravity NASA aircraft experiments, designed 2 of 6 tests in the successful Capillary Fluids Experiments (CFE) performed in the International Space Station in 2006/07, and advised on CFE modifications launched in April 2010. In 2012 he was selected by NASA as PI on the Fluids Education payload for ISS, a new science payload and program in conjunction with a colleague at another school. He is viewed as a leader in pursuing new fluids dynamics research opportunities that are becoming available shortly in the commercial sub-orbital rocket industry. He is one of three researchers selected for early flights with Blue Origin with an NSF-funded payload, and he is also launching payloads with Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, XCOR, and Exos. Professor Collicott began activities in innovative teaching in capillary fluid physics, in STEM K-12 outreach, and in placing the positive news of university engineering education and capillary fluids research in the national media in 1996. In 1996 he created, and still teaches, AAE418, Zero-Gravity Flight Experiments, at Purdue. The research activities of Prof. Collicott’s undergraduate students have been shown in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox News NY, Good Morning America, Chicago Tribune, Via Satellite, and a multitude of local television, print, and radio markets.

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Putting the Emerging Commercial Sub-orbital Industry to Work for Engineering EducationLow-cost re-usable commercial sub-orbital rockets are beginning to fly for space tourism and forresearch and education missions. This emerging industry, which for now is unique to the UnitedStates, is presenting new opportunities for engineering education. Rockets to fly with andwithout human occupants are being built by a handful of companies, and thus numerous types offlight opportunities are becoming available. The educators who choose to be early adopters ofthis new flight capability may find fertile ground for both teaching and research.The paper reports on the author’s teaching activities in which an existing design-build-test classfocusing on zero-gravity flight experiments is adapted to provide undergraduate student designedand built payloads for launching in the commercial sub-orbital industry. Payloads launched todate on test flights of these rockets are described along with lessons learned for student payloaddesign and flight. Payloads under development and the class structure which enables this workare also described. Feedback on the in-class experiences are gathered from recent alums and willbe shared and discussed.One example is fully-reusable liquid rocket with green propellants, gentle lift-off, and GPS-guided parachute return to the launch pad area for payloads only, not for human flight, whichfurther reduces costs. These new rockets are being developed with private capital; they are fullycommercial ventures, not government programs. Access to launch is therefore through apurchase, not agency peer review. One US company has a price list on line making it clear thatthe cost for access to space is now approximately 1/250th of the typical cost for an experimentlaunch on a traditional NASA or ESA sounding rocket. Some deride the industry as being “joyrides for rich guys,” but note that those joy rides are financing the development of the vehiclesand research and education users are essentially paying only the recurring costs of flightoperations. Thus, the cost for spaceflight experimentation is now sufficiently low for frequenteducational launches.

Collicott, S. H. (2015, June), Putting the Emerging Commercial Sub-orbital Industry to Work for Engineering Education Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24624

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