Words by Jana Makki
Illustration by Katie Herchenroeder
In 1947, three students studying mechanical engineering and one studying chemical engineering at the City College of New York had a dream to design, build, and test a rocket. At that time, there were no books containing the information needed and rocket motor details remained classified.
With a rocket motor made out of stainless steel, the students convinced school authorities to allow the rocket engine to be tested on the front of Amsterdam Avenue in a 10 feet deep culvert. They had their first successful firing in the presence of a junior president of Reaction motors in which they were offered employment for having built one of the most dangerous things he has ever seen. In 1948, they won the student award given by the American Rocket Society. The significance of this award demonstrated an extraordinary accomplishment that has not been done since.
Before Harlem Launch Alliance (HLA) was conceived, it was a club founded in 2014 by Rob Davis and other students called the Planetary & Rocket Science Group (PRSG). Its goal was to organize a project called “Messenger-1” to launch at the largest rocket competition in the world, Spaceport America cup. “The original scope of the project was far too ambitious for a first-year team, it needed people with an already high level of manufacturing proficiency. It would have required 20-25 well organized people to even have a chance,” said Rob Davis, the creator of HLA and one of the founders of PRSG.
He added, “You probably couldn’t have assembled a more dysfunctional group of individuals if you tried.”
Despite the failure of messenger-1, Rob continued to strive to grow CCNY rocketry and looked to collaborate with three different clubs: CCNY office of Experimental Rocketry, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and CCNY Aerospace. With no successful outcomes from that collaboration, Davis decided to be a founder of a nonprofit organization that would combine all of these interests. “My intention was to found the HLA and hand it off to those who were interested in pursuing its mission. As has consistently happened, the HLA always finds a way to keep me around,” Davis exclaimed. The organization successfully launched a rocket at the Spaceport America Cup in 2017.
Currently, the program has two ongoing projects. The first project, “Project Messenger,” is run by Tamar Nagel, the messenger chief engineer. “I first got involved with the CCNY Aerospace as a sophomore, when I wandered into a ‘crash course in rocketry’ that Rob Davis, the founder of HLA, was teaching. I was fascinated by the material – who doesn’t think rockets are awesome?” shares Nagel, a senior studying electrical engineering. As an electrical engineer, she was approached to be the lead controls engineer for another project. She is now in charge of a project that is due to launch at Spaceport America Cup in June 2019. It is located in Southern New Mexico and represents more than 70 institutions located all across the USA and around the world.
The other running project is Project Aries led by Chief Engineer Michael Borrello. “Project Aries is the first NYC collegiate rocketry team to design and manufacture a single stage hybrid rocket engine,” explained Borrello. The entire engine structure and filling lines are designed and manufactured by the Launch Engineers on the project.
In May 2019, many different types of designs were created by multiple teams using rapid protoyping and technical manufacturing skills. “The firing of this student designed engine will mark the beginning of an era where students from CCNY demonstrated that with limited mentorship from the college, they were able to successfully design and manufacture a launch ready rocket engine from scratch,” Borrello remarked.
With the competition approaching, Harlem Launch Alliance is sharing its progress and preparation for the competition on its Instagram page, @HarlemLaunchAlliance. With limited resources and funding, HLA is asking for aid from the CCNY community, providing a link to a funding page in its Instagram bio. Competing against institutions with high budgets, compared by lack of supplies provided, makes the organizations goals harder to reach. When looking at their website, www.hla.nyc, one can get involved by submitting an interest form which are accepted on a rolling basis. Students are often looking at the next best thing to put on their resume, and HLA, located right on campus in the Grove School of Engineering, provides many with that opportunity. All majors are encouraged to get involved!