The Tale of DEWICK

Tufts Rocketry’s biggest project this year has been our team rocket, the “Dual-deploy Electronically-controlled Wickedly Intimidating Cloud Kicker,” a.k.a. DEWICK. Designed to reach 10,000+ ft altitude and speeds of over 1000 mph (Mach 1.3), the most important goal of this project was to learn how to make a complicated and powerful rocket as a team. As such, our most basic metric of success was getting DEWICK in the air.

First, some important context: Tufts Rocketry re-started almost from scratch in January of 2022. Over the following months, as we built (relatively) simple rockets for NAR Level 1 certification, we continued to learn about simulations, design, construction, systems, recovery, and how to teach all this to the next incoming group of Tufts rocketeers. With many more Level 1 certifications achieved going into 2023, we sought to take Tufts Rocketry to the next step by designing and building DEWICK.

Layout of fundamental components for DEWICK, including electronics

Perhaps unsurprisingly for such an ambitious engineering project, we began encountering setbacks and challenges right from the outset. Our ever-increasing experience building and launching high-power rockets continually exposed things we needed to fix or improve. From the final components’ arrival on February 5 to the Critical Design Review on March 1, multiple subsystems saw a complete redesign. We spent the next two and a half weeks building and fit-checking prototype and pathfinder hardware, then left for spring break.

DEWICK’s motor power and expected altitude limited it to exactly one launch date and site: April 15 in St. Albans, VT (over four hours away). Spring break ended March 27. That left us eighteen days to build and test … well, almost everything.

The first of many integration tests to ensure a smooth deployment
After numerous failed attempts, we finally managed to successfully test our parachute deployment system!

We entered the final week before launch with most subsystems incomplete, and a colossal team effort ensued. On L-4 (4 days before launch), DEWICK passed its fit checks. On L-3, we successfully powered on the vehicle for the first time. On L-2, it passed altimeter and deployment validation tests. And on L-1, as DEWICK’s final coat of paint dried and all the rocket’s last-minute tweaks were completed, it passed GPS tracking tests and was integrated for launch. That night, after over 160 man-hours of work in a single week, DEWICK sat carefully cradled in the car, ready to go.

Final photoshoot before DEWICK's big day

All the testing and integration practice we did ensured launch day operations went very smoothly. The rocket was on the pad and ready to launch in exactly an hour–nearly half of what it had taken us in the past for our much simpler Level 1 rockets. We powered on the avionics, set up the cameras, checked the GPS connection, counted down, and held our breath.

The motor ignited smoothly and the rocket shot off the pad. At T+1 second into flight, the aft end of the motor exploded sideways, followed at T+1.23s by the motor’s forward end. This tore DEWICK’s bottom half apart, melted part of the aluminum fin assembly, and blasted the downlooking camera a hundred feet downrange. The upper half (avionics bay, upper airframe, and nosecone) survived and returned under a (torn) parachute to the ground, where we recovered them safely. Extensive post-flight analysis of the motor determined that a poorly seated O-ring was the primary cause for the forward end explosion, while a small (<1mm) gap between the aftmost propellant grain and the nozzle caused the bottom explosion.

Long Live DEWICK 🖤 💔 🕊 🙏

This is rocket science, and rocket science is hard. There are no words to properly convey the crushing and hollow disappointment of watching the rocket you’ve put so much time and effort into tear itself apart one second into flight. However, dealing with failure is a crucial part of engineering; failing in and of itself matters significantly less than what you learn and how you proceed.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.

Winston Churchill

In terms of our overarching objectives, we succeeded in getting DEWICK in the air! Even more importantly, we had ~0.9s of stable flight at up to 361 mph before the motor started to misbehave. These nine-tenths of a second provided significant support for the stability and aerodynamics portion of our simulations, as well as our novel airframe construction techniques. Additionally, our electronics bay and the electronics inside functioned as intended; we recovered the electronics bay in one undamaged piece, despite it pulling massive G-loads (the onboard barometric altimeter recorded 20.1G, but we estimate the in-flight breakup caused loads at least twice as high). All this gives us a high level of confidence that a rebuild of the same exact design with a properly integrated motor would succeed.

Most importantly, we learned so much about what it takes to design, build, and fly a rocket like this. Tufts Rocketry is ready to apply these lessons to our next project, a bigger rocket that will compete against other university teams. Our current target is the Intercollegiate Rocketry Competition (IREC) at Spaceport America, the most prestigious of its kind in the world. As a wise man probably once said, “shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you’ll land–just hope it’s in one piece.”

For those interested in the technical aspects of the rocket, check out our wiki and Nico's documentation on the rocket build.