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Liquid Rocket Lab launches with grand opening

By Carlos Leano, May 3, 2022

After five years of entering the race to space, the grand opening of Cal Poly Pomona’s new Liquid Rocket Lab took place on April 22, fueled by a $2.5 million educational partnership agreement with the Air Force Research Laboratory.

The lab is located just outside of Building 13, equipped with new machinery and tools to progress the learning of engineering students. It allows a space for students to gain hands-on experience in constructing and launching a liquid rocket.

Liquid Rocket Lab team gathers with university and community leaders to celebrate the new lab’s opening. (Carlos Leano | The Poly Post)

Students, faculty, alumni and donors gathered at the grand opening to celebrate. The ceremony included a ribbon cutting and showcase of the new 2,100-square-foot facility.

Various emotions were felt with many longing for this day to come.

“One is nostalgia because of all the previous academic year students that were hoping for this day and didn’t get to see it,” said Frank Chandler, advisor of the program and associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. “Pride as well, for students and their successes that are currently working on the Liquid Rocket Lab.”

The new Liquid Rocket Lab will take CPP’s aerospace program to new heights. Chandler is looking forward to the new workspace in the coming years. The students now are working on a piecewise set of projects that will step-by-step get them into orbit, he explained.

This starts with lower-altitude objectives, like the FAR-Mars competition. The contest, which started four years ago, grants $50,000 to any academic institution whose bi-propellant liquid-fueled rocket comes closest to reaching 35,000 feet. CPP aims to be the first team that wins it.

“That’s a stepping stone to go the next level,” Chandler said. “The next level is designing a rocket engine and rocket itself, to take us to the von Kármán line.”

To achieve the von Kármán line, a rocket must be launched 62 miles high. Passing this line is considered orbit, which stands high on the team’s list of goals.

“It’s amazing the ability of the students to build starting from nothing. Looking at the new 3D printing capability, there was nothing like that back then,” said alumnus J.R. Richardson (’84, aerospace engineering). “Back then we did more designing and less building. Seeing the project opportunities now is really amazing.”

Richardson is an engineering fellow at Raytheon Intelligence & Space and stays involved with the industry advisory council for CPP’s Department of Aerospace Engineering. He is pleased with the growth of the program and the support CPP is receiving to give this opportunity to students. This opportunity aims to have students work ready when they graduate.

“Now I hire people for my company,” he says. “We want people with hands-on experience because they’re going to be more prepared for the workforce to work on an interdisciplinary team. This program shows a great example of that.”

Students will work on real-world problems in student environments embodying CPP’s learn by doing philosophy. Getting involved, they get to experience state of the art hardware they will use in their future aerospace jobs.

“The Metal X 3D printer is game changing for us,” said Thomas Ito, lead system engineer. “It allows us to print in materials like stainless steel, copper or Inconel. It’s going to change what we do here because we could rapidly manufacture prototype components at a fraction of the time and cost.”

This 3D printer allows the team to make all their parts in-house, cutting the process of sending pieces out and getting them machined. It’s efficient, allowing more time to analyze, test and fire.

The team recently hot fired their first engine, the first time a Cal Poly Pomona team has done so. This was a momentous occasion inside of the project Ito mentioned. The next step is integrating that onto a launch vehicle with the ZEUS project.

“We’re developing the second-generation engine. Hopefully in the coming years we’ll start doing some prototype and subsystem testing of that engine. Eventually we’re going to build that up to where we are at with the engine we just fired and make a spaceshot.”

The spaceshot is easily five years out. It is a goal that the team is working toward, and Ito hopes to see the project when it is completed.

To find out more about the Liquid Rocket Lab, the campus can visit the new facility or check out the lab’s PolyCentric website.

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