PORTLAND STATE HAS NEVER boasted the grandest facilities in the land, and the school’s homegrown rocket program is yet another inventive child of austerity.

“Our labs pretty much sucked,” says Greenberg, recalling his days as an electrical-engineering undergrad in the late ’90s. (The program has since moved to a shiny new building, largely funded by PSU alum and tech entrepreneur Fariborz Maseeh.) “All we got to do was very rudimentary—measure this, put that together. You want to be an engineer, but you’re not working on anything big. So a friend of mine and I decided that if we really wanted to learn how to do electronics, we should do something hard. Something that could kill us. And we should come up with a lofty goal.

“Putting a small satellite into earth orbit—I mean, how hard could that be?”

In 1998, Greenberg and a few collaborators built Launch Vehicle 0—basically, a glorified hobby-shop rocket implanted with a black-and-white camera and a 300-baud modem that allowed it to communicate with the ground during its brief, 1,800-foot flight over Monroe, Washington. The experience served to underscore the fact that, two centuries after the first modern military rockets and decades after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, shooting equipment of even rudimentary sophistication into the sky remained very difficult.

 

power fuse box
Image: David Emmite

The PSAS launch tower computer

“We discovered that we had no idea what we had no idea about,” Greenberg says. “How does a computer behave under 10 Gs of force? No clue.”

In the years since, PSAS has built and launched two additional generations of increasingly sophisticated rockets—more nimble controls, higher-octane computers, sturdier structures. In June 2010, an earlier iteration of LV2 flew 15,600 feet above the desert, with a top speed of almost 837 miles per hour. The video shot by the onboard camera is thrillingly vertiginous—and, more important to Greenberg and his comrades, documents the vehicle’s safe parachute return to earth. A 2005 launch ended in a “lawn dart” crash—straight up, straight down—which still casts a notable pall over any PSAS gathering. Meanwhile, the group has evolved into a large and shifting collective, held together by ambition and a geeky love for seeing how complicated stuff works.

“We’re very Portland,” Greenberg says. “The whole movement of ‘makers’—people who hack, tinker, and build stuff on a DIY basis—is very strong here, and we have that hands-on spirit. But there’s typically a big gap between that mentality and real science. Hopefully that gap is right where we are.”

Two weeks before this summer’s desert expedition, PSAS gathered for its regular Tuesday-night work session in a gear-cluttered room at a Portland State technology center. Rocket guts were strewn everywhere, under construction or examination by some of the dozen or so members in attendance. In this crowd, any incredibly complicated point about software coding or aerodynamics almost always elicits some other, even more complicated, point.

Nathan Bergey carried a Moleskine notebook in the pocket of his cuffed jeans; the notebook’s cover bore a sticker that read, “I HAVE SEEN AM MAKING THE FUTURE.” Since moving to Portland five years ago “for no particularly good reason,” the 27-year-old Bergey—a freelance science consultant who works with NASA on various projects, but neither PSU student nor faculty—has established himself as a key PSAS member by sheer force of enthusiasm and know-how. He regularly travels to Florida for major launches, and often stayed up to the wee hours to watch televised shuttle landings. Last summer, he raised more than $18,000 via the online funding site Kickstarter to manufacture a lamp that will light up whenever the International Space Station flies overhead.

“Um, there’s actually a lot of high explosives on that table. So, uh, don’t explode anything.” –Nathan Bergey

“I’m probably the only tourist who’s gone to NASA centers and taken photos of the launch checklists,” Bergey says. “I shot every checklist I could see.”

While other PSAS members intently soldered circuit boards or checked the rocket’s parachute, made to order by a local seamstress, Bergey discussed communications. Improving the electronic connection between the ground crew and the rocket in flight is a major PSAS goal and has bred a characteristically resourceful set of solutions.

 

robert gaskell truck
Image: David Emmite

Robert Gaskell aboard one of the many equipment-hauling missions on site

The rocket’s onboard computer, for instance, transmits information using standard Wi-Fi equipment—the same radio technology that allows Portland café patrons to live-tweet their espresso consumption. Wi-Fi radio signals are typically weak, but the radio spectrum used for Wi-Fi overlaps with that used by ham radio operators. With an FCC ham license, the Portland State rocketeers use ham equipment to boost the Wi-Fi connection to the rocket to 650 times more powerful than the signal from your laptop.

This combination of two technologies—one now a standard part of urban life, the other redolent of a ’70s trucker cab—typifies the PSAS approach. A lot of the group’s work, in fact, seems to amount to rummaging through technology’s junk drawer and stitching mismatched parts together. The rockets’ software demands custom rewrites of Linux source code, for instance, but PSAS solders their circuit boards’ tiny parts together by baking them in a modified toaster oven.

“Most of what we build is commercially available, somewhere,” Greenberg says. “But a lot of it is sold by defense contractors. We’re a fuzzy-bunny student group with no money. So we have to figure out how to make everything from scratch.”

When PSAS needed a rare type of antenna, for example, the commercial cost ran to about $18,000. Members asked around until an East Coast antenna expert directed them to some published 1960s research, and they built their own for about $200 over two years. When the spinning fin canister that helps stabilize the rocket in the air required sophisticated bearings (retail: $1,000 apiece), PSAS members machined the steel parts themselves—these being just the kind of people who happen to have exceptionally nice, computer-controlled milling machines in their garages and basements.

“It’s kind of a stone-knives-and-bear-skins approach,” Greenberg says. “But it ends up being disciplined, hard science with a practical application, and there’s not a lot of that freely available on the web. Our stuff is. The way I look at it, we may never build an orbit-capable rocket. But someone will, hopefully using some of our work.”

The resulting atmosphere is reminiscent of hanging out with the ferocious, insular computer kids of the late ’80s and early ’90s as they patched together dial-up modems and primordial PCs. In PSAS’s world, “high tech” does not mean chasing the next mobile-social app that will deliver a coupon to every iPhone in the land. This is a latter-day vision of the cobbled-together hacker culture that produced Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs in the first place. The Portland rocket lovers want to make technology that does stuff—crazy stuff.

As the prelaunch meeting wound down, one PSAS member started pawing through a table piled with jumbled gear. Bergey interrupted his fast-paced verbal walk-through of the rocket’s communications system and looked over. “Um, there’s actually a lot of high explosives on that table,” he said. “So, uh, don’t explode anything.”