#ViterbiOrgs Spotlight: Rocket Propulsion Lab Launches Traveler!

Viterbi’s  40+ student organizations and design teams are a huge part of what makes the Viterbi Community so great. That’s why we’re bringing you the #ViterbiOrgs spotlight blog series, where we’ll celebrate the accomplishments and feature the events of these groups and help you find opportunities to get involved!

Today, we’re featuring USC Rocket Propulsion Lab, who launched their rocket, Traveler, on September 21, 2013, after two years of hard work and waiting, achieving something no other students in the country have done! This update will cover pre-launch operations, the launch itself, an unfortunate explosion, and future plans:

For more information about USC Rocket Propulsion Lab and information on joining, please contact webmaster@uscrpl.com

To launch Traveler, we attended the annual BALLS rocketry event in Black Rock, Nevada. The playa, as the dry lake bed is called, is one of the flattest places in the world. It is a 9-10 hour drive from LA, and frequently has harsh weather such as sandstorms. RPL goes to Black Rock once or twice a year to launch our largest vehicles; smaller ones are launched at the Mojave Test Area.

The tower area.The tower area.

On Friday morning, we drove the trailer out about one mile from the flight line, unloaded the tower, and parked the trailer an additional 300 feet away. Weather in the morning was nice, but heavy winds and sandstorms developed in the afternoon as we took the final steps to prepare the rocket for flight. Further weather delays, a train, and FAA flight restrictions led to a night spent in the rocket trailer.

Positioning the tower for the first launch attempt.Positioning the tower for the first launch attempt.

When it was finally launch time, the composite igniter took a few dramatic seconds to ignite the whole motor, then Traveler soared almost straight up, obscuring the view of the rocket from the trailer.

IMG_4081 (2)

After 3.5 seconds of flight, at approximately 4000 feet, the smoke trail became abruptly larger and separated into several pieces, followed in a fraction of a second by the unmistakable sound of a solid rocket motor catastrophically failing. The pieces of the rocket arced over, with what was left of the motor still spewing fire from both ends as it cartwheeled. The team split up to run and drive out to the pieces. The nosecone landed the closest, bouncing on the titanium tip; other parts drifted farther, like the motor (which made a decent-sized crater) and the parachute (which went several miles).

The flight ended in an explosion at T+3.5 seconds, but all is not lost! Most parts of the rocket were recovered, and some can be reused, and enough of the motor was intact to piece together the cause of the explosion.

We didn’t reach our end goal, but we have still accomplished another step on the way. We built a spaceshot, had it on the pad armed and fueled, and fired it. No other group of students has gotten anywhere close to that. I’m excited we have gotten this far  – we had issues – and we’ll work through them and will be back soon enough.

We view this flight primarily as a chance to learn. We were prepared for the possibility of a failure; after all, Traveler’s motto is “space or nothing!” We were ironically reminded of this slogan when it was exposed, written in sharpie, on the outside of the motor case under the tip-to-tip layers — not a place we ever expected to see again.


Thank you and congratulations to everyone who has helped make this happen.

Click here to read the full blog and learn more about USC Rocket Propulsion Lab!

Questions: please contact webmaster@uscrpl.com

Jenny Vazquez-Akim

Author Jenny Vazquez-Akim

Jenny is the Director of Student Engagement and Career Connections in the Viterbi Admission & Student Affairs Division. Jenny manages many of the undergraduate student life programs at Viterbi, as well as the services and programs that connect all Viterbi students with their post-graduate plans. Jenny holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from USC, a Master’s in Public Administration from NYU, and a Doctorate in Education from UCLA.

More posts by Jenny Vazquez-Akim

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