BONNEVILLE SALT FLATS — Alexa Lindberg spent about 75 hours building her first rocket.
On Friday, the 20-year-old BYU mechanical engineering student put her blue-and-yellow rocket to the test. She drove off a paved road and onto the Bonneville Salt Flats, following a line of orange cones that stopped after about 5 miles.
Here, out in this salty vast space, was the 24th annual Hellfire event. Sponsored by the Utah Rocket Club, Hellfire is one of the few remaining events where launching a rocket to heights of up to 25,000 feet is permitted, according to the club’s website. Special clearance is required for the event, which took place Aug. 1-4 and saw nearly 100 participants launching rockets.
Although she’s long had a dream of being an astronaut, Lindberg hadn’t launched a rocket until last October. And now, she was about to do her first certification launch. If her rocket’s flight was successful, she would be able to buy larger motors and participate in high-power rocketry.
Her shoes caked in salt, Lindberg walked her rocket out to the launching pad. Once everything was set up, she left the range and joined the spectators. The countdown began: Five, four, three, two, one. Her rocket took off, flying about 4,000 feet.
And then some cries could be heard as the rocket arced and began its downward trajectory. The parachute didn’t deploy and her rocket came down fast, nose-diving hard into the ground.
“I had made a couple of mistakes in how I built it. … The shock cord ripped through my rocket. You can see where the line cut through the tube. It came down and just took a core sample of the salt,” Lindberg said with a laugh as rockets continued to launch in the background. “That wasn’t the most successful flight.”
Hellfire was almost done for the day, and this wasn’t a quick fix. But although disappointed, Lindberg wasn’t discouraged.
“(They said,) ‘If you still want to get your level one certification, come back tomorrow with your tube repaired and the broken part cut off and we can make it work,’” Lindberg said. “And I said, ‘OK, I’ll be there tomorrow.”
So she drove to Provo, repaired what she could of her rocket Friday night and drove back to the salt flats Saturday morning. But before her second attempt, she spent several hours with a technician who helped her fix some additional problems from Friday's launch — like using a hammer to try to pry out a jammed motor.
“It was a little bit frustrating to have my rocket fail yesterday,” she said. “But today was just encouraging. … Pretty much everyone I’ve worked with in rocketry so far has been amazingly supportive and helpful. (The technician) showed me the ropes and showed me exactly what I can do better and how I can improve my design in the future. I know that I’m learning and everyone here has gone through that stage. … Luckily I’m pretty good at laughing at myself.”
After all the back-and-forth driving and last-minute repairing, Lindberg’s second chance came at 2:20 p.m. on Saturday. This time, the launch was a success.
“You always have to hold your breath before a launch. You never quite know how it's going to play out,” Lindberg said. “So I was definitely relieved to see that my second go at a certification launch was successful. Even if it takes a couple of tries, it's a really satisfying feeling to have spent so long learning about and working on a project that's ultimately successful. To see things pay off like that is so much fun.”
In the long run Lindberg, a San Antonio native who is an upcoming junior at Brigham Young University, hopes to become an aerospace engineer, working for a large company like SpaceX or NASA. As a teenager she took part in NASA’s High School Aerospace Scholars program, and at BYU, she is in the presidency for the university’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.
“It’s sometimes a little bit isolating to be a woman in engineering, but we have this whole support system,” she said. “We know that women are more than capable of doing great things and we need them in engineering fields, and so providing this kind of support system and activities can really help spread awareness and encourage women to come to engineering and also stay in engineering.
“Because there’s some cool things going on,” she continued. “People are working on a mission to Mars (and) NASA announced that we’re going back to the moon. I think we’re going to get people on Mars. I don’t know exactly the timeline … but I would love to be a part of that.”