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Rocket City, USA

May 27, 2015

About Me 

Alanna Ferri is a fourth-year Mechanical Engineering student. She recently Co-oped at Apple, Inc. and is headed back to Silicon Valley to work at Tesla Motors. Outside of class, you can find her playing trumpet in the Pep Band at Matthew’s Arena or launching rockets with Northeastern’s branch of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics

Rocket City, USA

In July 1960, President Eisenhower forever changed the future of Huntsville, Alabama with the creation of the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). The Center was tasked with carrying man to the moon; its main mission was to develop the Saturn boosters used in the Apollo missions. Many of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules and boosters are on display all throughout MSFC and Huntsville. The message is palpable: Huntsville is a city that will stop at no end to advance the engineering and technology that make this country great.

Every year, NASA hosts the Student Launch initiative that challenges university teams to design and build various rocketry and robotic systems. This year, the competition was held in Huntsville and required teams to simulate a sample return mission to Mars. The project would have to locate, capture, and insert a rock sample into a rocket, then prepare and launch the rocket. Northeastern’s AIAA team worked tirelessly for eight months to create a closed-loop system that would mimic the specifications required for a voyage to Mars. 

Apart from the technical knowledge we gained, the most influential part of the competition was actually being in Huntsville. The night we arrived, after 3 days of driving and camping, we saw an illuminated Saturn V from the highway. It was a pivotal moment for us, a sort of 300 foot reminder of what incredible hard work and passion can produce. The Saturn V would appear a few more times during our week in Huntsville. 

Each day of the competition was meticulously planned and included tours of Marshall, distinguished speakers, and rocket fairs. Every speaker, without fail, would end their talk by telling the student audience that in the aerospace industry, there are challenges to solve and technologies to develop. Solutions to these issues will be found by a new generation of rocket scientists and engineers, more specifically, our generation. Without our help, the field will not advance.

The most poignant of these messages came to us at the awards banquet at the end of the week. Under the peachy glow of sunset, and with a Saturn V dutifully hanging over our heads, retired astronaut Brain Duffy told us how important young engineers are to the future of aerospace. To hear an astronaut, who’s spent over 40 days in space, tell us, as college students, that we are the sole hope for the future was powerful. It brought together the months of late nights and weekends spent working on our project into focus. The hours we spent building and driving around New England for test launches seemed less like a college competition and more like a mission with real-world ramifications. Our inquisitive minds can change the world. We just need to keep exploring.