Dottie McSpadden knew her arm was burned, but it didn’t feel that bad.
At least not at first. A couple of hours later, though, she’d changed her mind.
“Oh, it was a nine out of 10,” she said. “I have not felt pain like that.”
McSpadden, a senior in mechanical engineering who graduated in May 2023 from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was carrying a six-foot, nine-inch rocket that had crash-landed in a field in South Alabama.
A member of the Rocket Mocs team in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, she and other team members were testing the rocket in early April for an upcoming competition—the NASA Student Launch Initiative for university and college teams across the country.
Parachutes for the UTC rocket usually deploy when a set of four small, gunpowder-filled canisters explode, but three of the canisters—each containing about the same amount of gunpowder as a Roman candle—hadn’t fired.
That is, until McSpadden was carrying the rocket site under her right arm and back to the launch site.
“I only had a short-sleeved shirt on so, if I had a long-sleeved shirt on, it would’ve been better, yeah,” said McSpadden, who grew up in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, and graduated from Wilson Central High School.
The right side of her torso was protected by her shirt, “but my whole right arm got directly exposed, and I got first- and second-degree burns all over my arm.”
A trip to the emergency room, some cleaning of the burns—most of which were on the inside of her forearm—protective salve and a wrap of clean bandages addressed the damage, she said. The pain remained.
“I am just groaning and wincing. I’m trying to call my roommates; I’m trying to call my mom and be like, ‘Hey, this happened. I’m OK. I’ll be home tonight.’ But I’m in awful pain. Then the pain meds kicked in, and I was good,” she said with a laugh.
The parachutes didn’t open because, distracted by a last-minute phone call from another Rocket Moc member to see how things were going, she forgot to take a pre-launch step that primes the canisters to explode, McSpadden said.
The rocket lifted off, hits its high point in the sky and started falling back to Earth, but no parachutes were slowing its descent.
“It’s coming down and we’re like, ‘OK, that’s coming down really fast. What’s going on?’” McSpadden recalled.
At that moment, she and Trevor Elliott, UC Foundation professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and faculty advisor for the Rocket Mocs, looked at each other and realized that the pre-launch priming step had been missed, she said, taking full responsibility.
“Which is tough, but I’m glad it was me and not someone who had no responsibility for what happened,” she said.
The crash-landed rocket meant more than burns on McSpadden’s arm. It also meant the 10-member Rocket Mocs team had to scramble to rebuild the rocket for the competition, which was a little more than 10 days away. Designing and building the broken rocket had taken about two months.
McSpadden rebuilt the electronics that controlled the parachutes as well as the ones that document how high the rocket soared. Other team members rebuilt the rocket’s body—or “airframe”—having to custom-make some of the parts again.
Others repaired the shattered payload section, which held a crucial camera system.
“The intent is to design something that could be used for outer space or other planetary body research,” Elliott explained. “Payload is the hardest part of the competition given its complexity. Many seasoned teams have payload failures.”
On top of it all, the fixes had to be approved by NASA before they began or the rocket wouldn’t be allowed in the competition.
“It took three of those days for review and NASA approval for repairs to continue as a competitor, and eight days to repair or rebuild almost everything as it was previously constructed,” Elliott said.
Despite the hurdles, the Rocket Mocs were approved by NASA and successfully launched their rocket in the competition. It flew to a height of 4,470 feet, McSpadden said. Winners won’t be announced until June.
Wherever they land, the UTC team rose to an occasion that might have crushed others, Elliott said.
“This team as a whole was hungry for success and pushed to achieve it,” he said.