The University of Windsor Rockery Team
Story by Ryan Percy
Photography courtesy University of Windsor
Model rocketry has been a fad that really began to take off in the 1950s and is credited with helping get generations of wide-eyed gleeful children into the science and engineering fields.
For some last year undergrad students in the University of Windsor’s mechanical engineering program, they were given the chance to become kids again and build something to reach for the stars.
“I’m a mechanical engineering student with an automotive specialty, so building a rocket isn’t in my field of specialty,” says Hunter Batten, one of the team members of the 2022 University of Windsor Rocketry Team, on how he came to choose it as his capstone, the required final project fourth year students take on. “But it was the only capstone project with a competition and that enticed me to choose it.”
What started as a way to get a final capstone project done for their undergrad lead to the team of nine standing at a launch site in New Mexico, the desert wind blowing across their rocket as they waited for it to finally launch.
“It was the nine of us and about 60 other people in the viewing area,” says Chris Francia, a graduate of the University of Windsor’s mechanical engineering program and rocketry team captain. “I remember the whole team was just so quiet. They saw it go up nice and straight and then everyone went crazy once the burn stopped.”
The Windsoar rocket was named as a pun by the previous year’s team and carried over since the 2021 team was not able to launch theirs. The Windsoar is not the kind of rocket you imagine building from a box you pick up at a craft and hobby store.
The hobby grade model rocket kits generally reach a height between 330 and 1,640 feet. The ‘Windsoar’ rocket blasted up 33,649 feet into the New Mexico sky, an accomplishment which not only saw the team jumping for joy but also being awarded fourth place in their category.
“It was definitely a big surprise seeing fourth place,” Chris says. “Especially this being our first time competing as a team and no members had experience even building a rocket. We were up against some big school names that had really impressive rockets so being able to compete around or above them was pretty surreal.”
But the impressive display of the Windsoar’s team seems like something almost out of a movie. Not only did all nine members not have any experience with rocketry, they had a fraction of the time of other teams, but there was one factor that makes their effort sound almost unbelievable.
“The competition was the first launch of the full rocket,” Chris says of them not being able to test the full system until they were there, “You’re not allowed to fly rockets of this magnitude in the Windsor area.”
The entire rocket had not been fully tested as one unit until the trial by fire of the actual international rocketry competition.
But not only were there issues with height regulation for testing but also the act of just getting the parts the team needed.
“We had to pick up the rocket motor in the United States,” says Hunter, who also specialized in building the avionics bay and electronic components, “We can’t cross the border with a rocket motor and when we went across to ensure the motor had all the components, it was missing a part. We had to scramble.”
This was not the end of their problems, rather just the beginning.
As Murphy’s Law dictates, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
The team had not gotten a chance to test everything together so on the morning, with the rocket set to a launch: something had to go wrong
“I’m still shocked to this day that it happened,” Chris says of an issue they had on the first launch attempt. “The flight computer had an issue and the top of the rocket popped off while it was on the launch pad. It didn’t explode but it fell apart so we couldn’t launch that day.”
Thankfully Hunter and others on the team were able to get a new flight computer working and synched up to make sure it was all working for the real deal.
“I went to the launch pad for the second attempt because I had to listen for a specific sequence of beeping to make sure the flight computer was in launch mode,” Hunter says of getting the rocket’s electronics to work.
While they won accolades and a lot of applause from their peers, there were three things the group earned through their hard work and dedication: new skills, open doors and most importantly, lifelong friends.
“When we started out, I only knew three or four other people on the team,” Hunter says. “But when we built this rocket, the 9 of us had to come together and work together. We wouldn’t have been able to compete if we hadn’t. We spent many long days designing, building, problem solving and overcoming challenges. We definitely became a close group of friends.”
What started as just an opportunity for some mechanical engineering students to build something cool for their final year capstone project, evolved into nine best friends who helped each other through the struggles of learning and building something together.
Now it has even changed the outlook for some of them going into the future of their engineering careers.
“This is the first time I got an introduction to aerospace and rocketry,” Chris says of how this competition changed his outlook on where to go forward with future career opportunities. “This is a field I didn’t know Canadians had much access to. But I’m doing my master’s with Pratt and Whitney Canada, a huge aerospace company. I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to explore this unless I joined this project.”
But most importantly is what Chris says he learned from the experience.
“Everyone has their self-doubts,” Chris says. “But having a project like this shows that if you just keep pushing forward and have a good group with you there is pretty much nothing you can’t accomplish. We didn’t take no for an answer and I think that shows a lot about Windsor itself. We’re a city that keeps coming back, we persevere.”