The Rocket Propulsion Lab at the University of Southern California is comprised of a team of undergraduate researchers with a bold mission: to design, build, and launch high powered rockets from scratch, and eventually reach the outer limits of Earth's atmosphere. They invited me to take a tour of their laboratory, and I couldn't wait to see what these young rocket scientists were up to [transcript below].
BILL MURRAY: We need someone who's in charge of ground support equipment for this whole thing. We have a lot of stuff on the agenda today, so let's get started.
CARA SANTA MARIA: I'm here at the University of Southern California Rocket Lab, and the coolest thing about this place is that it's completely student-run. They conceived of it, they built it, and now they're actually building rockets here. It's a team of young rocket scientists.
BM: It needs to be cut to length, and the air frame needs to be cut to length. So two things we can get done today...
ALEX LEVERETTE: So this is the rocket lab. Let me show you around a little bit.
CSM: Cool. So, what happens here at this big table?
AL: This is where we do a lot of cutting and prepping of composite materials, which is what we make most of the rockets out of.
CSM: About 6 years ago, a team of students built this place. And since then, they've been working diligently towards a common goal of shooting a rocket into space.
AL: The USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory is a group of undergraduate students who design and build high powered rockets. One of the really neat things about this group is that there's very little faculty involvement.
CSM: So I see there's a rocket hanging from the ceiling here. Did you guys build this?
AL: Yeah, that was one that the-- some of the founding members built, back before I actually went to USC. That's flown three times.
CSM: Oh, wow. It looks brand new.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Five, four, three, two, one. Ignition. [BLAST]
AL: The project we've been working on, which is to launch a rocket to space, a rocket we're calling Traveler, has been ongoing since before I started my education here at USC.
CSM: So in a few months, they're pushing to reach 350,000 feet. That's outside of the earth's atmosphere. If you think about it, we fly in a passenger plane at 30,000 feet. So they want to launch this rocket ten times the height of a commercial airliner.
CSM: This is Traveler?
AL: This is Traveler.
CSM: What stage is Traveler in right now? Like, how many months do we have until this launch?
AL: There's quite a few months to the launch. But it's actually fully complete right now.
CSM: So the nose cone is missing...
AL: The nose cone's sitting over on the table. It's actually ready to go. We could fly tonight.
CSM: And what about this big machine? This looks expensive.
AL: And dangerous.
CSM: Yeah [LAUGHTER].
AL: Jake's working on a piece of tooling. It's actually gonna be part of a mold for some fuel that we're going to use in that same process.
CSM: Okay, cool.
BM: So this is a really small rocket motor that we've already fired twice.
CSM: It's a motor?
CSM: It just looks like a hollow tube.
BM: So what it is is we actually put propellant into this tube and put a nozzle on one end of it. And fire it.
CSM: So propellant is your fuel?
CSM: Okay, what kind of fuel goes in here?
BM: This is solid rocket fuel.
BM: So it's basically a rubber that has fuel inside the rubber and it burns really hot.
CSM: Do you guys buy that from NASA or do you--
BM: No. We actually make it ourselves out in the desert. That's one of the things that we do in lab--we actually make every part of everything we fire.
CSM: I saw some sparks flying, what are you guys working on over here?
MATT ORR: We make our own propellant here. So we're making a stand for a new propellant mixer.
CSM: The rocket fuel is kind of the main part of a rocket, is it not? Without the fuel--
MO: It's what makes it go.
CSM: It's [LAUGHTER] what makes it go. And I heard earlier, too, that it weighs the most.
MO: Mmhmm. Our rockets--generally two thirds of the weight is the fuel.
CSM: These students have come up against a lot of challenges. They write their own grants to get funding for this lab. They have to work with government officials to be able to get clearance to launch these things in the desert. And they've, you know, overcome so many obstacles to be able to be a self sufficient student-run rocket lab. That's pretty cool.
AL: People tend to dismiss us and say 'aww, they're just a bunch of kids, they're not serious, they don't have what it takes.' And we keep pushing and we keep coming back with the right analysis and keep coming back with the right paperwork and with the right enthusiasm. And people have been forced to step back and say 'hey, these kids are serious. They not only are willing to do what it takes to make this happen, but they have what it takes.'
CSM: All right. I'm gonna get outta here, thanks guys.
AL: Take care.
CSM: Flight on! [LAUGHTER]