Kelley Key In Vanderbilt's NASA Rocket Launch Championship

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Education , Harwich

The Vanderbilt Aerospace Design Lab (VADL) team at the NASA competition. From left, Dexter Watkins, Robb Rutherford, Justin Broughton, Andrew Martin, Quinlan Monk, David Hirsch, Ben Gasser, Matt Kelley, Robin Midgett, Andrew Voss, Jimmy Pan, Rebecca Riley, Mitch Masia, Henry Bristol, Dylan Shane, Dustin Howser, Chris Lyne, Chris Romanoski, Bryan Lawson and Eric Ribbeck. PHOTO COURTESY OF AMRUTUR ANILKUMAR

HARWICH — NASA hopes to have the capabilities to send humans to Mars sometime in the 2030s, but if Matthew Kelley and classmates at Vanderbilt University have a say in the matter, it could happen sooner.

Kelley, who recently graduated from Vanderbilt, grew up in Harwich and went to Harwich Elementary School and Chatham Middle School. While he was in middle school, his teacher, Karen Manning, recognized his interest in engineering and science, recommending he go to a high school with a focus on engineering.

“I never considered it until she pointed it out to me,” Kelley said. He followed her advice, attending Governor's Academy in Byfield. “I've always been a math and science person, did a lot of landscaping here and was always building things and that got me interested in engineering.”

“It does not surprise a bit,” said Manning, who teaches seventh and eighth grades at Monomoy Regional High School now. “From the time I met him, if there was problem, he would attack it, see it through to the end with such passion.

“He wanted to argue the laws of physics with me. He was so incredibly inquisitive, curious and followed through. I remember him trying to challenge the laws of motion in class. I remember thinking he is going to challenge these principles. He always had so much talent – engineering, mathematics and logic – and the perseverance to stick with it.”

Kelley is still building things, though now he is doing it through CAD, computer aided design. This past year, he and 10 other Vanderbilt University students built a rocket and entered it in the NASA Student Launch Challenge, an annual event that draws more than 50 college and high school competitors. It is an eight-month commitment to design, build and fly payloads that support a space launch system.

Before this year, Vanderbilt University had won the national championship three times in a row. Kelley said a year ago he worked at an intern program at Parametric Technology Company in Needham, a computer software company specializing in 2D and 3D design software.

When he got back to college in the fall, some of his friends were involved in NASA's aerospace competition. He had been doing a lot of tech support work specializing in CAD and was recognized for that talent.

“They needed someone to design a rocket,” Kelley said of his fellow students. “My friends on the team knew I was good at that so they asked me to do it. The first step is to build it on the computer so you know what you have to do in real life. I was the big picture.”

Kelley said each member of the team had a task, a section of the rocket to design. He did the system-level overview to make sure there was room for each and everything to fit into the rocket. He was responsible for detailed dimension drawings for the creation of “Thrustworthy,” Vanderbilt's rocket.

It is a very detailed process. The competition has a theme, Kelley said, and a lot of the discussion surrounding this year's launches had to do with Mars. But there is also specific criteria required by NASA. The goal was to construct a rocket that would travel a mile.

The competitors gather at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. and have the opportunity to mill about and look at other peoples' rockets and explain what their rocket is about. In mid-April they went to the Bragg Farm in Toney, Ala., the chosen location for launching this year.

“You're graded on report writing and overall design of the rocket and the overall launch,” Kelley said. “Ideally you want to get as close to a mile as possible. We wanted to hit it exact, but we were bummed with our calculations.”

The rocket was 100 inches long and five-and-a-half inches wide. The thruster was 1,720 newtons, about 389 pounds of force, and it weighed 30 pounds. The engine burned for 2.1 seconds and it reached the mile marker in another second.

The NASA competition has a launch altitude of 5,280 feet above ground level. Altitudes above and below cost teams point. The Vanderbilt launch was 5,552 feet. The launch was considered near flawless. In fact in the awards banquet Vanderbilt University won the coveted payload design and project review awards, and they won their fourth national championship in a row. The University of Louisville came in second and Cornell University in third.

“It was a successful launch, the parachute opened successfully and the rocket did not drift too far. There were some rockets that blew up and one lost a motor,” Kelley said.

Kelley said the Vanderbilt rocket was driven by a green thruster, a monopropellant using 70 percent hydrogen peroxide as a fuel, which was validated through ground-based and flight testing for low-altitude rocket flight. Once it reacted to the catalyst, the only thing that came out was water and oxygen, he said.

“It was pretty cool,” Kelly said. “From that experience I learned a lot about rocketry and working as a team too. It was cool at that level, but it's a lot of work.”

Kelley, the son of Robbin Kelley, Harwich Cemetery Administrator, and Kevin Kelley, said it was a hard year because he found himself working 90 hours a week between school, the rocket team and serving as a teaching assistant in computer aided design.

Kelley's been back on the Cape since graduation doing landscaping work. But that will all change in a little more than week, when he moves to Atlanta, Ga. to begin a new job with software consultants PowerPlan, Inc.

He may not be crafting any more rockets in the near future, but Kelley said some of his aerospace team will. He said some members of the team are going to work for Space X, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, the company owned by Elon Musk.

While the theme of the week at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center was Mars, Kelley said Musk also wants to get to Mars. “I'm betting SpaceX gets to Mars first and not a government program,” Kelley said.