Georgia Tech student group debuts new rocket in annual launch. 

Thursday, 13 July 2023
The Ramblin' Rocket Club poses proudly with their new sounding rocket named Material Girl.

The Ramblin' Rocket Club poses proudly with their new two-stage sounding rocket, Material Girl. 

On July 7, more than 50 Ramblin’ Rocket Club (RRC) members swarmed the Mojave Desert to launch their newly designed two-stage rocket, Material Girl. The Georgia Tech Experimental Rocketry (GTXR) group, a subgroup of RRC, is an interdisciplinary team of students majoring in aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, business, and more, all passionate about rocketry and innovation.

Their mission is to become the first collegiate rocketry team to launch a two-stage, sounding rocket to the Kármán line, 100 kilometers above Earth and the official start of space.  Now in its fifth year, the team spends the academic year designing, building, and planning for a two-stage rocket launch that routinely happens in the summer. Last year’s rocket, Mr. Blue Sky, reached 19,500 feet and had the team buzzing with new ideas for the next rocket.

“It’s a pretty daunting challenge, but every year we develop technologies and designs that will get us closer to our goal,” said Parth Garud, aerospace engineering student and GTXR structures team member. “Every year, we are working on perfecting our technologies, and each launch serves as a milestone on our way to 100 kilometers.”

Students packed in four 15-passenger vans carrying rocket components and computers from Atlanta to the desert, in an aptly named launch site – Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR). But no one traveled quite as far as Garud who flew from Limerick, Ireland, where he’s studying abroad as a part of the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering’s Study Abroad Program.

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I am a Material Girl

This year, GTXR decided to use a different approach by utilizing various materials – hence the 80s-inspired name – and manufactured the rocket’s body predominantly using carbon fiber while the nosecone was crafted from fiberglass.

Garud shared an interesting team tradition. “We name all of our rockets after songs. So far, we’ve had Sustain (Stayin’) Alive, Rubber Band Man, and Mr. Blue Sky.”

“We started experimenting with using titanium for the motor and vacuum forming parts on the rocket as well as external shrouds, which we haven’t done before,” explained Garud.

Students check on Material Girl

Students work together through their pre-check manual before launch. 

These changes and materials helped to make the rocket lighter and more efficient as it travels to a max speed of Mach 4.2, as well as increased the likelihood of recovering the rocket post-launch.

Nearly all of Material Girl was manufactured on campus using the Yang Aero Maker Space and the Machine Shop. Additional manufacturing assistance came from the generosity of the team’s sponsors and partners of the team including the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, Georgia Tech Honors Program, Georgia Tech Student Foundation, Georgia Space Grant Consortium, Georgia Tech Student Government Association, Hexagon, City Auto Body Shop, Blue Origin, Kenesto, Jonathan Shi, Graphite Store, Delta Tech Ops, Rock West Composites, SpotSee, and SpaceWorks.

"GTXR greatly appreciates all of the financial and technical support we receive from our sponsors.  They are an essential part of our team's operation and allow us to do many innovative and exciting projects within collegiate rocketry.  With their support, we will continue to push the boundaries of what a student-led rocketry team can accomplish," said Connor Johnson, BSAE 2024, GTXR co-president.

Student working in the dessert during a Ramblin' Rocket Club launch

Students find some shade and rest as they prep for the big launch. 

Student working in the dessert during a Ramblin' Rocket Club launch

Walking through the Mojave Desert to get to the launch site. 

Standing tall at an impressive 176 inches, Material Girl weighs 197 pounds before liftoff, carries 96 pounds of a custom GTXR propellant formula – GT Gold, has a max thrust of 2,200 pounds, and an expected apogee of 220,000 feet.

Another new initiative for the team was increased public relations and social media efforts. This year’s launch featured livestream coverage from the launch pad, mimicking NASA and SpaceX’s public livestream coverage. Team members answered viewer questions, discussed projects the team has been working on, provided launch updates, and played a pre-produced video during downtime.

“We’re really pushing for video documentation of our initiates by showcasing what we do to a larger audience,” shared Saniya Kulkarni, GTXR public relations and structures team member. “Ultimately, we’re working towards creating a documentary and sharing our journey to space.”

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Initially scheduled to launch at 11 a.m. E.D.T. on Saturday, July 8, a two-hour delay ensued due to team uncertainty if the two-stage separation would work as planned. The team used this time to confirm that the GPS data was working properly, so that they could easily capture flight and recovery data. Something Kulkarni says ended up being a good thing - more on that later.

They went through all of their necessary checks, made their way through the pre-launch sequence, and prepared to see Material Girl fly. The team viewed the launch pad huddled in cement bunkers as excitement and nerves filled the room.

“We were exhausted from long days of prep but immediately wide awake as we counted down from the bunker,” shared Kulkarni. “I remember my heart racing during the countdown and not being able to take my eyes off the rocket. I was in the ‘PR bunker,’ so my teammates and I had every camera available pointed towards the rocket with the livestream running in the background. It was such an unreal feeling.”

Just a few moments after GTXR Co-president Joey Gemini said “3…2…1…ignition,” Material Girl flew off the rail and into the sky, followed by yells, cheers, and applause from the bunkers below.

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prepping the launch pad

Material Girl is placed on the rail. 

watching from the bunker

Students watch from the bunkers before launch

Lessons Learned

This launch wasn’t for a competition or an award but for the love of rocketry and pushing the limits.

“There’s a sort of terrifying excitement in the bunker as we count down. We’ve all spent a tremendous amount of time and effort to make the vehicle, and it’s really exciting to see it launch, but we’re also very aware of the power of what we’ve created,” shared Garud. “It’s a really unique and amazing feeling, and I’m so glad I’ve gotten to experience it the past two summers with GTXR.”

The team is still gathering data and metrics from their sensors and computers, but as of July 12, the team estimates that Material Girl reached about 30,000 feet.

The avionics analysis revealed that the nosecone deployed early, but the team is still combing through the data to determine what occurred during takeoff.

“You can’t really fly anything without having a strong avionics system, so we are working on understanding where that went wrong, how we can improve it, and troubleshoot so we can go further in our future years,” explained Kulkarni.

One silver lining is that the materials used for the fins, along with the method in which they were made, showed little to no damage when they recovered the rocket.

Because they had taken the time to perfect their GPS system on the launch pad, they were able to recover the sustainer and booster sections within two-hours of the launch. Recovery of this type can sometimes take days.

As soon as the rocket touched the ground, the transfer of the team presidency became immediate – another interesting GTXR tradition. Now Johnson and Alfonzo Lagares are determining what’s next for the 2023 team.

Material Girl rocket, lifts off the ground during launch


Material Girl rocket flies through the sky

Material Girl flies through the sky