A Suffolk teen and a group of university undergraduates reached for the stars — and came close to the entry point of space.
Joshua Farahzad, 19, of Stony Brook, and his teammates from around the country built and launched two rockets on their own, without university support or funding, or guidance from a professor.
Farahzad, a rising junior at Duke University majoring in electrical and computer engineering, and economics, said he came up with the idea last summer to build a rocket from scratch and send it into space. He pitched it through emails to college rocketry clubs across the country and recruited more than 40 students to join him, including two, Hugh Ferguson and Brandon Cea, who went to Ward Melville High School in East Setauket with him.
Many of the rest of the group never met each other in person. Except for the final launches, almost everything took place remotely through Slack messages, texts, video conferences and occasional phone calls.
“There’s a billion reasons you wouldn’t do this,” said Hugh Ferguson, 20, a high school friend of Farahzad’s who developed the website for the group they named Operation Space. “But seeing people ignore that is something that has inspired me.”
Trying to send a rocket to space brought the idea down to earth, Ferguson, of East Setauket, said.
“You are showing people you can do it. And you are pushing other people to do it,” he said. “It’s not for NASA. It’s not for Elon Musk or SpaceX. It’s something that you are doing.”
From a spaceport south of Albuquerque, Farahzad and his teammates launched their rocket Friday and another Saturday.
While neither launch propelled the rocket to the Karman Line, the point that separates earth’s atmosphere from space, the team considered the launches a success because, they said, a bunch of amateur teenagers created a rocket that ignited and went far up into the sky.
“For all I knew, once it left the launch rail, it could turn into confetti,” said Saad Mirza, a 19-year-old from upstate Olean, who took one semester off from Princeton University to work on the project as its technical and design lead. “I was expecting the whole thing to fall apart, turning into shreds. But it was going up perfectly straight.”
Operation Space’s first rocket went up to 100,000 feet, about one third of the way to the Karman Line then came apart and fell to the ground. The second rocket reached beyond 52,000 feet, Mirza said.
University of Southern California undergraduates have said they believed their group, in April, was the first to send a student-built rocket across the Karman Line and into space. They had university backing.
Operation Space’s effort cost about $100,000 with each rocket costing about $20,000, and they paid for it through fundraising. They asked for donations from engineering firms and other organizations. The group designed a business team among them that handled the fundraising.
Throughout the past year, the team ran into technical problems and communications misunderstandings. Parts didn’t fit. Computer systems crashed. Team members came and went. And they couldn’t get the chemical needed to ignite the rocket’s second stage, Farahzad said.
“Time and time again, we were just stuck,” Farahzad said. “We didn’t have a contract to launch in a facility. We didn’t have a launch rail. We filed with [the Federal Aviation Administration] 20 days late. We didn’t purchase launch insurance [on time].”
They got a break last August. Farahzad reconnected with Cea, a 20-year-old cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Cea picked up Farahzad from the Stony Brook train station one day and joined the team after hearing him talking about the project over Indian food.
Cea said he spent hundreds of hours to finalize proper paperwork and secure approvals from commanding officers so that the team could buy one pound of boron potassium nitrate, a regulated explosive needed to ignite the rocket’s second stage.
“It was like catching lightning in a bottle,” Cea said of the project. “It seemed like it was never going to happen at certain points.”
They got the first launch scheduled at Spaceport America, a federally licensed launch complex on the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in the southern New Mexico desert.
The night before the launch, Farahzad had trouble falling asleep on a reclined driver’s seat in an SUV parked near a trailer that held the 17-foot-long loaded rocket.
As the 60-second countdown began toward launch the next morning, “I was feeling kind of numb at that point. It didn’t feel real,” Farahzad said.
But then “there was this massive sound that echoed. It went straight up like an arrow.”