rocketship going up

To infinity and beyond with Operation Space

“If we were all in one location in real life, we would be able to establish a certain degree of common knowledge. This enormous, deep body of knowledge that’s going into the design of the vehicle has been stored on Slack.”

Saad MirzaDesign Lead, Operation Space

There is an imaginary boundary in the sky—nearly 330,000 feet above sea level—that separates Earth from space.

It’s called the Karmann line, and it’s the place in our atmosphere where the air becomes too thin for airplanes to stay aloft. In February 2019, an interuniversity coalition called Operation Space will aim to become the first group of college students to send an unmanned rocket across it.

The idea came to Josh Farahzad at the end of his freshman year at Duke University, when he and a friend were talking about what they should do with their free summer. The previous year, a group from the University of Southern California had sent a rocket 144,000 feet high, a record for a student-built craft. Farahzad, whose indefatigable optimism is reminiscent of Homer Hickam in the movie October Sky, thought he could beat it.

There were just a couple of obstacles. First, there wasn’t a major donor or team at Duke who would fully shoulder the burden to make it happen, so Farahzad had to email rocket clubs all across the country in an attempt to find like-minded space junkies. Then, once he assembled a group of 40 students from California to Puerto Rico, he had to figure out how they would communicate so that everyone was on the same page.

When one group at Purdue is assembling the electrical components and another is running simulations at Stanford, there’s an immense possibility of teams siloing themselves off from the larger organization. Next thing you know, the rocket’s parts might not fit together when all the pieces are shipped to Vanderbilt in Nashville. “The thing I can’t stress enough is that there are a lot of moving parts here,” Farahzad says. “I was really afraid of bubbles forming.”

From remote connection to a common cause

To get Operation Space off the ground, Farahzad and his colleagues dispensed with wayward texts and emails and instead turned to Slack. It didn’t just help them communicate effectively; it gave them a sense of camaraderie they were missing by not being in the same room together.

“These are really important summers for these people,” says Farahzad, acknowledging the difficulties of rallying a team of older students (including a Ph.D. candidate) as someone with little rocketry experience. “They want to be all-in for their internship. They want to get return offers… On paper, the project doesn’t make any sense.”

But Slack allowed Operation Space to start a dialogue and, more important, an energetic culture that spilled off the screen and into real life.

A digital rendering of the Operation Space rocket, which will launch from New Mexico in February 2019

Using Slack also helped the team collect their institutional knowledge in one place. Saad Mirza, the design lead and a sophomore at Princeton University, considers the group a hive mind to which he can refer questions that would take him hours to research on his own. Somewhere across the country, the avionics lead might have made a decision about what kind of battery performs best in harsh conditions—all Mirza has to do is type “battery” in the search bar, and he’s got all the information and decision-making history he needs. “If we didn’t have Slack, I just don’t see how that collaborative environment can work,” he says.

Supporting team structure with channels

A project as technically complicated as Operation Space requires a slew of committees, which are reflected in the team’s Slack channels. There’s #avionics, #launch-systems-structures, #propulsion, #simulations, #staging, and more. “We use [channel names] to reinforce the structures of the group,” says Farahzad.

All of those channels are public, allowing members to be in the know even if they aren’t directly participating. This also avoids the bubbles Farahzad was concerned about.

“If we were all in one location in real life, we would be able to establish a certain degree of common knowledge,” says Mirza. “This enormous, deep body of knowledge that’s going into the design of the vehicle has been stored on Slack.”

With design of the rocket complete, the most important conversations now happen in #leads, where the head of each subteam reports back to Farahzad. Their mission? To make sure all their individual deliverables—from electronics sourced from Rutgers to rocket motors supplied by a subcontractor in Massachusetts—are delivered on time to Vanderbilt for final assembly.

“We had a lot of great design work from all 40 people over the summer,” says Mirza. “Once the school year started, interest obviously dwindles a bit as people’s priorities shift. Now we’re at the point where there’s less design work, and the committee leads are the ones putting in the most time, organizing the final integration of the vehicle.”

Counting down toward liftoff

If the team’s ambitious timeline stays on track, Operation Space will complete the vehicle by the end of 2018. They plan to launch from New Mexico in mid-February, either from Spaceport America or the legendary White Sands Missile Range (where the first atomic bomb was tested).

The team is constructing a second rocket as a backup, because even the most buttoned-up professional designs have touchy fail rates. The design is elegant: At 16 feet tall and six inches in diameter, it weighs 200 pounds fully fueled. The two-stage design allows the vehicle to shed extra mass by dropping the used first stage rocket motor after it burns out—greatly increasing the performance. The rocket will go on to hit Mach 6 (3,800 mph), and Farahzad and Mirza expect its temperature to exceed 1,500° F.

Beyond being a potentially record-breaking feat of student engineering, Operation Space has already proved what heights can be reached through remote teamwork. Many of its members are the presidents of their schools’ rocket clubs and have known each other competitively, not cooperatively. But thanks to this moonshot they’re attempting together, those walls have come down.

“It’s done some wonders,” Farahzad says. “We’ve gotten to know a lot of really good people.”