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Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Well, at least nobody was on board.

Jacob Maestas, a member of the propulsion team, and Fernando “Doc” Aguilar, the instructor, climb the ladder to make last-minute preparations Saturday for the rocket built by students in a mechanical engineering class at the University of New Mexico. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The world’s largest amateur rocket, built by University of New Mexico engineering students as part of a rocket science class, broke into pieces shortly after liftoff on Saturday morning near Rio Rancho. The fractured craft left a corkscrew-shaped plume of smoke in its wake as it flew into the sky before parachutes deployed and brought what was left of the student project back to earth.

“Catastrophic failure,” it was called by Fernando “Doc” Aguilar, the adjunct professor in the mechanical engineering department who teaches the 400-level course. “Somehow, we had a structural failure. It looked great for the first 200 feet. And then it looked like the motor went straight through the rocket.”

Despite how the flight ended, Avery Lopez, who just graduated from UNM and has accepted a job at Northrop Grumman Corp., said the project was a learning experience.

“It wasn’t what we anticipated, but the fact is, we launched,” Lopez said. “That’s a feat in and of itself for UNM.”

She said that, to complete the rocket, the students had to create lines of communication to share ideas with one another, which required more communication and people skills than the class was used to.

“All of us, we are all kind of hobbyists,” she said. “We’re all hands-on people. Some people work on their cars, others work on electronics. Myself, I’m into sewing. We’re tinkerers.”

Students in a mechanical engineering class at the University of New Mexico, count down just before launching their rocket from a site outside Rio Rancho. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The rocket fell apart during the second attempted launch at around 8:30 a.m. The rocket didn’t lift off after the first countdown, so the students performed more system checks. A crowd of dozens gathered to watch the flight dubbed the “Lobo Launch” at the Albuquerque Rocket Society launch site outside of Rio Rancho.

As the launch continued to be delayed, many wondered aloud if the increasing winds would be a problem. Others pointed out that the rocket looked slightly slanted.

Ahmed Almalki, right, and Niccoli Scalice load a pickup truck with pieces from their class’ 47-foot-tall rocket, which broke apart after traveling hundreds of feet. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

After the second countdown, the craft looked good at liftoff, but then it veered off course and disintegrated over the shrubby desert landscape.

Aguilar said wind may have been a contributing factor in the crash.

It was the first year the two-semester course titled Rocket Engineering was offered at UNM. Aguilar’s fulltime job is with the National Assessment Group, a defense and space company at Kirtland Air Force Base. During the first semester, students learned the skills necessary to design and build the rocket. Then they spent a semester putting it together.

The students were broken up into propulsion, structures, recovery and systems groups. There were 27 students in the fall and 19 in the spring, he said. They had to work and network with outside contractors and vendors to get the parts for the project.

In addition to a semester of work, the launch took hours of prep time. The black, silver and cherry colored rocket wearing a UNM logo had to be put together on the launch pad. Much of the work was done Friday and some students camped out at the launch site and got started putting the 200-pound, 47-foot-tall rocket together well before dawn Saturday.

The rocket was expected to go more than 200 mph and soar 3,000 feet into the sky before releasing a UNM-developed satellite, then return safely to earth, according to UNM’s website.

Aguilar said the course has proved popular. Next year’s class is already full, he said.

He said he’ll analyze the debris to try to determine what happened to help the next class.

“It’s kind of disappointing. ($25,000) down the drain,” Aguilar said. “But NASA has blown up more rockets than we have. It happens.”