Rocket men

Co-op, Engineering

- Brad Buie

(L-R) UVic engineering grads Cass Hussmann, Michael Pearson, Graeme Ramsay and Simon Moffatt are helping Rocket Lab make orbital rockets. Photo: Kieran Fanning.

Four UVic alumni are helping to make space accessible—one launch at a time

Michael Pearson has participated in hundreds of engine tests, but he still holds his breath during lift-off. Pearson is just one of four UVic grads who work for Rocket Lab out of their office in Auckland, New Zealand (the company is headquartered in Huntington Beach, California).

Rocket Lab’s mission is “to open access to space to improve life on Earth.” The company has found its niche through the design, manufacture and launch of smaller rockets to deliver ever-smaller satellites to low Earth orbit—rather than ferrying big payloads.

On January 21st of this year, they did just that with the second test launch of their Electron rocket. From their launch site on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand, the rocket ascended to orbit and deployed four satellites: an Earth-imaging satellite for the company Planet and two weather mapping and ship traffic tracking satellites for the company Spire Global. The fourth satellite, Humanity Star, was Rocket Lab’s own, a reflective geodesic sphere that flashed across the night sky for the next few months before burning up on re-entry to the atmosphere.

Among the dedicated team of engineers who accomplished this feat were the four UVic alumni. Michael Pearson (BEng ’16), a propulsion engineer, was on console in mission control as the stage-two operator—monitoring the performance of the upper stage of the rocket that carries the payload out of the atmosphere to an elliptical orbit around the Earth. He has run over 300 engine tests, and he says each one is as exciting as the first. But nothing compared to actual lift-off.

“At the end of the stage-two burn, you’ve officially reached orbit,” says Pearson. “For six minutes I don’t think I took a single breath before the engine shut down on time.”

For Simon Moffatt (BEng ’16) also a Propulsion Engineer, his moment came 45 minutes into the flight, when the payload transferred from an elliptical orbit to a circular orbit thanks to Rocket Lab’s in-house designed and built kick stage, powered by the 3D-printed “Curie” engine.

“It was the successful completion of the mission and what I was working on, which was the Curie engine,” says Moffatt. “I did not have any feedback until then.”

Graeme Ransay, who will graduate from UVic this fall, was only on his fourth day on the job as a member of the range team. “I was down on the pad fueling the rocket.”

Cass Hussmann (MASc ’16, BEng ’14), an avionics engineer, sums up the fruits of their labour: “What I love about working here is building the infrastructure. Building the satellite isn’t very hard. The hard part is getting it launched.”

UVic’s connection with Rocket Lab began with Michael Pearson and Simon Moffatt. They thought it would be fun to build a rocket. After a Google search, Pearson emailed Rocket Lab. Seventeen hours later he had an internship, and he spent the next eight months working in New Zealand. While he was there, he helped wrangle Moffatt a job. Since then the company has hired more students from UVic.

After Pearson and Moffatt finished their internships and returned to school, they started the UVic Rocketry club. The team earned third place at the 2016 Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition in Utah, launching a 4.5-kilogram payload to an altitude of over three-and-a-half kilometres. Rocket Lab has recruited other talented students from the club. In addition to the four UVic engineering alumni, three other UVic students have worked there on co-op terms.

“It takes a certain kind of person to pursue additional work on top of what already is a strenuous course of study,” says Pearson. “People who make meaningful contributions to these teams have already shown that they have many of the traits that we look for.”

Recruiting star engineers to build the launch vehicle, however, is only one part of Rocket Lab’s success. Rocket Lab has built the world’s only private orbital launch site licenced for lift-off up to every 72 hours. New Zealand is an ideal home base because it’s a small, sparsely populated island nation. They are also in the process of selecting their second site, which will be on US soil. They’ll be looking at an equatorial launch site and a pad in the UK as well.


In this story

Keywords: alumni, engineering, co-op, international

People: Cass Hussmann, Michael Pearson, Graeme Ramsay, Simon Moffatt

Publication: The Torch

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