It was billed as “redemption” for Team Nike at this year’s New Zealand Rocketry Association’s National Launch Day at Orini on Sunday, March 5.
Not only had the team again doubled the rocket’s power from the previous launch, but they were attempting to launch from a home-built launch pad mounted to a 1996 Ford Courier ute. What could possibly go wrong?
If we turn back the clock, Team Nike is a bunch of amateur rocketeers who achieved a Kiwi record in 2020 when they launched New Zealand’s largest amateur-built rocket.
The rocket replicated Nasa’s creation Nike Smoke from the 1960s and was the work of Ethan Kosoof of Huntly, who is the project manager, Dr Martin van Tiel and his wife Debbie, of Taupiri, Chris North from Onewhero and Kelvin and Kim McVinnie from Te Pahu. All are members of the New Zealand Rocketry Association.
Apart from a delayed firing because of a technical hitch with the electronics, the 2020 launch was perfect.
Back at Nike HQ in Te Pahu, a plan was devised to boost Nike’s power from a P-class motor to a Q for the second launch, representing a doubling of power. Unfortunately, the rest of the rocket wasn’t up to the extra power and it was a spectacular failure.
With their heads between their legs, Team Nike headed back to the workshop.
But instead of sulking, a plan was concocted over a couple of beers in the shed to double the power again with an R motor and make some modifications.
Nike was extended to 7.4m, almost a metre longer that the first build, and strengthened.
The new motor meant she now had four times the original power and she was beefed up to 277kg.
But Team Nike asked themselves — was that enough? What else would be cool and had never been done?
With the flight deadline approaching, they came up with a plan to build their own launch vehicle, which they could drive to launch events and straight into the paddock — hence the converted 1996 Ford Courier ute rocket launcher.
The ute was driven a short distance on the road to the launch area where a nervous team prepared Nike for flight.
This time there was a gremlin in the hydraulics for the launch vehicle, but with that sorted — and cloudy skies clearing — it was time for the countdown ... and redemption.
The launch was beautiful. Nike flew straight and true to 20,000 feet, exactly as planned. Her predicted top speed was Mach 1.4, but she actually recorded Mach 1.7.
Kelvin says the only issue was one of the parachutes not fully deploying, so she came in a bit hot.
But the only damage was losing one of the fins.
“We were stoked with the flight,” says Kelvin.
“It was dead on the simulation. She flew straight, the power was good and she had a lovely, huge flame.
“We loved it. The crowd loved it.
“It could not have been a better day.”
Amazingly, the Ford Courier also survived the launch.
Kelvin says the simple plywood deflectors did their job and only the number plate got a bit melted.
The success means Team Nike beat their own New Zealand record for the biggest amateur rocket launch, the most powerful amateur rocket launch outside the US, and are the first amateurs in New Zealand to launch from a mobile platform, and one of the few worldwide.
While Nike was the major attraction of this year’s National Launch Day, it was a day filled with highlights.
One was Ad Astra, a 6m rocket built by Jack Davies and flown with help from his father Tony.
In 2021, it was converted into a two-stage rocket and, for this year’s flight, the power came from an N motor for stage one and an M motor for stage two.
The launch was beautiful, but unfortunately stage two failed to fire.
New Zealand Rocketry Association president Evan More also managed a successful flight with Pitbull — a 2m-long rocket powered by a K motor with plenty of flames, black smoke and yellow sparks.
Evan managed to find a window for his flight before the end of the day after what he described as a busy but successful event for members.
“We were a bit down on manpower because of other commitments, so there was a lot for everyone to do to make the day run smoothly and safely,” he says.
The job was made a bit more difficult because they attracted their best crowd ever, not that Evan was complaining.
He says it was great to get a good crowd and show what rocketry was all about.
“It is fantastic to see the youngsters having a go at making and launching a rocket,” he says.
This year the team providing the make-your-own rockets sold out.
“Hopefully, it will spark an interest in the science of rocketry,” says Evan.
“Lots of people started out by joining a club and coming to a day like this and are now working in the space industry.
“Peter Beck [New Zealand’s Rocket lab founder] started out in the paddock with us.”
Evan says the launch day is also used by university teams to test and measure systems and equipment, and this year there were teams from Auckland University’s Auckland Programme for Space Systems (APSS) and the University of Canterbury Aerospace Club, which is sponsored by the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
APSS programme director Jim Hefkey says the Auckland programme is an extracurricular offering for any undergraduate students.
It is funded by philanthropy and has led to successful startup ventures.
The programme concentrates on payloads rather than rocketry.
“We don’t know what the future is for our students,” says Jim.
“But we do know they will be asked to work in teams to solve complex and unfamiliar problems.
“Space research provides the perfect preparation for that work.”
Students are asked to identify a need for humanity and design a satellite that solves the problem.
APSS was the first group in New Zealand to build a Cube-Sat satellite, which was then launched into orbit by Rocket Lab in 2020, and at National Launch Day launched a P-Sat to about 1000m.
It was then ejected and returned by parachute, gathering data en route.
The team is now developing two more satellites, which they hope will be launched by Rocket Lab before the end of the year.
By contrast, the Canterbury team is involved in rocketry and was testing their SPA Cup Rocket, powered by a Warp 9 motor, in preparation to compete at the 2023 Spaceport America Cup in Southern New Mexico in June.
The world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering conference and competition attracts almost 6000 rocketeers from 50 US and 48 international teams for five days of competition in several categories.
Last year, the Spaceport America Cup overall champion was the University of Sydney.