PSU Aerospace Society shoots for the stars

In 1961, astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel into space and complete one full orbit around the Earth. The Portland State Aerospace Society celebrated his achievement with Yuri’s Night Party on April 12, a global celebration of the event.

PSAS has been growing since Andrew Greenberg founded it in 1999, and it includes students, professors and industry professionals from a range of different fields.

Greenberg, who is now the group’s faculty advisor, was an undergraduate in electrical engineering at PSU and wanted to study aerospace. Because PSU lacks an aerospace program, he collaborated with other mechanical and electrical engineering students to create this group.

“That was a little weird because we usually don’t talk to each other,” Greenberg said. “And so from the very beginning, it was very much an interdisciplinary project, and that has always marked it.”

Additionally, they have local industry members serving as mentors.

“That’s a really big deal because I don’t know of any other student projects where we have such a high percentage of people coming and helping out, which is exciting,” Greenberg said.

PSAS boasts an impressive list of achievements in the last year alone, from running Linux on the rockets on a computer to using Wi-Fi as a telemetry system. Another ambitious project is taking its avionic system—its electronics computer—and turning it into an actual satellite. PSAS is also sponsoring five undergraduate capstones, three of whom are in mechanical engineering, where they are building a carbon-fiber rocket.

The long-term goal is to build the first orbital rocket at a university. Aaron Baker, a junior in electrical engineering, said it is a 20-year project and not necessarily achievable, but that isn’t stopping the group members’ pursuit.

“It’s our guiding vision,” Baker said. “We want to be an amateur space program, and everything we do is pushing in the direction of engineering complexity, and systems engineering, and thinking about how to design a rocket so we can get maximal performance toward that goal.”

“It’s its own little tiny space program, is what it’s turned into,” Greenberg said. “It’s being pushed by the students. It should have died a long time ago, but people are so excited about space that there’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm.”

Part of this enthusiasm centers around what Greenberg described as a miniature space race, with half a dozen universities trying to be the first to build a rocket that reaches a hundred kilometers in height—the beginning of space.

For Marie House, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, it’s about more than competition. Participants are acquiring practical experience.

“We’re not just competing in some competition,” House said. “We’re building a rocket that we fly every year and gather data from, and we analyze. It’s something you can really go out and apply.”

She also emphasized the notion of community and bringing people together. House explained that PSAS is open-source, meaning it shares its work and designs online. Members are interested in helping others, and that’s part of what makes the group unique.

“PSAS is all about this growing and evolution,” House said. “We aren’t just hobbyists doing our own projects. We’re collaborative. We’re building. We’re evolving.”

Baker and House said their passion and enthusiasm reflects the entire group.

“For me, it was like finding a group of people who wanted exactly what I want and were going to do it even if no one else had time for them or were going to give them any money,” Baker said. “It was really motivating and inspiring.”

For House, she said she is heavily involved because she wants to do something purposeful.

“The space industry is an improvement to the quality of human life,” House said. Baker echoed this sentiment.

“We’ve learned an incredible amount about ourselves and where we are in the cosmos and how things work as a result of space exploration,” Baker said. “I think it gives us a sense of purpose.”