Countdown to 1985

In 1985, I had a discussion with one of my professors about design projects. He suggested students are minimalists: They don’t want to work any harder than they need to. That professor didn’t know my father always encouraged me to go above and beyond and to challenge the status quo. I went to our department head, Professor Malhotra, and expressed my desire to design and build something. He supported me, somewhat hesitantly, offering me help with the design but not with the fabrication. He was kind enough to obtain a nitrocellulose-nitroglycerin cartridge and suggested I design a rocket engine around that. I got a couple of my friends excited about building a rocket-propelled model of a missile.

Our design was a foot-long steel body, with a 3.5 Mach exit gas velocity, which required a convergent-divergent supersonic nozzle. The cartridge would burn for less than a second and propel the model more than three miles. In the first design discussion with the faculty, they asked us to cut down the range to 100 meters so we could test it within our sports grounds and not have to worry about air space violations. That made the design much simpler, and weight was no longer a consideration. We could take a mild steel rod, drill an axial hole for the cartridge, and put in the nozzle at the other end. We discovered the cartridge was 1.1″ in diameter. But the biggest drill bit in the college workshop was 1.0″. We had no money to buy anything. The college refused to buy a new drill bit. We devised a crude workaround: We stuck a small piece of wire between the drill bit and the drill chuck to hold it eccentrically*. We chose not to discuss this hack with anyone in the workshop and went to the lathe machine. We got the hole we needed.

Once the rocket was assembled, we decided to test it by holding it in a vice on the workbench inside the workshop. The test failed because there wasn’t enough charge in the igniter to create a uniform starter burn. We redesigned the ignitor and ran the test a second time. This time, the exhaust blast was powerful enough to slam the door shut 10 feet away. We were happy and excited to go to the field.

The following day, it dawned on us how lucky we were not to have been in the exhaust’s wake. The concept of personal protective equipment was alien to us back then. The news quickly spread about a successful lab test. Younger students gravitated to the toy, and we had to start securing our assets at the end of every day. The professors were excited as well.

We built a small portable launch pad, redid the range/height calculation, and tested it in the field. This time we all stood far enough away. The first attempt was a vertical launch. The model rose to the estimated height, fell back, and broke the nose cone and the stabilizing fins. With a new set of parts, our next launch was at a 45o angle for maximum range. We hit the 10 x 10 meter target, 110 meters away.

We all learned a lot — creativity, agility, persistence, teamwork, limitations, and the power of clearly defined objectives. Our teammate, Dr. Jatinder Singh, now heads a division of National Aerospace Labs in India. Another team member, Group Captain Aurobindo Handa, heads the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board in India.

Update in 2021

Tejinder Jindal, a leading professor at the department, invited me to visit him in November of 2021. I accepted the invitation. To my surprise, the missile project was still in the department. We quickly pulled it out, cleaned it up, and played around with it a little. I remembered having taken a picture of me kissing it when we first built it. So, I did that again.

Did the university keep the project to inspire students? I hope so. Were they too lazy to throw it away? That doesn’t seem likely. But I’m not sure. I am sure, however, that I was thrilled to see it.

How often do you come across a school that’s preserved a student project — a piece of its work and intellectual history for 36 years and counting?

The moral of the story is this: Ideas are necessary, but not sufficient. Execution is what makes the difference. Every time I see SpaceX and Elon Musk, I think, “Now that’s the real deal. I was only making toys.”

* Please don’t try this at home or in your workplace.

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