Find Your Passion: Rocket Girl

Shelby CochranAlbertville’s Cochran has seemingly been surrounded by rockets her entire life. (Jeff Hanson)

By Lauren Musselman and Mary Wymer

Shelby Cochran's life has been inundated with aerospace engineering since she was a little girl.

With a long family history in aviation and aerodynamics and growing up near NASA's Huntsville shadow, Cochran's interest in flight began in middle school. It was there, at Albertville’s Alabama Avenue Middle School, where she won a contest with her essay about bone-density loss among orbiting astronauts. She was awarded a trip to Houston, where she toured NASA facilities and met students with similar space interests.

As a high-school senior, Cochran was invited to a University of Alabama student-recruitment event in her hometown. Dr. Chuck Karr, dean of the College of Engineering, was the guest speaker.

"I was impressed not only with the University of which he spoke, but also with the man he was," says Cochran. "He was more than glad to speak to me after the program and spoke as if he sincerely wanted me at UA in his college."

Cochran scheduled a tour of UA where she met with one of her future teachers, Dr. Paul Hubner, assistant professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics. It was during this meeting, Cochran says, she fully realized engineering was the right choice for her.

"It was not only the conversation but also the feeling I had just walking into the building," Cochran says. "It was the atmosphere that reeled me in to this decision."

Shelby CochranUA’s Team Rocket Girls, of which Cochran is a member, won an award for its numerous spaceflight-related outreach activities. (Jeff Hanson)

While enrolled in an introductory aerospace class in the fall of 2010, Cochran says she was challenged by Hubner with designing, building and flying a glider meeting certain criteria. The wingspan had a maximum length; it had to be light, but it also had to fly as far as possible without injuring its tiny passenger … an egg.

Chosen by Hubner as one of six team captains, Cochran and her team of six other students built the winning aircraft.

"I was proud of my team," says Cochran. "Our glider made me realize that I love hands-on projects and left me hungry for more ways to put my studies to good use. I was referred to look into this new rocket team some of the mechanical engineering girls were putting together."

That new team, the Rocket Girls, was UA's first-ever female rocket group. Focused on NASA's University Student Launch Initiative competition, the team's challenge was to design, build and safely launch a reusable rocket. The rocket had to reach, but not exceed, a one-mile altitude. Reports, designs, test flights and outreach events were all part of the competition, culminating with an April launch.

Team Rocket Girls held 19 outreach events during the school year, reaching 3,200 students in local classrooms and community groups. In the competition, it received the Education Engagement Award for best inspiring the study of rocketry and other spaceflight-related topics and also won a team spirit award.

Also that spring, Cochran's peers and instructor selected her as team leader for project proving that a paper airplane has lift.

"Instead of using mathematical equations, fundamental flights dynamics or physics, we built a wind tunnel," Cochran says. "With a limited budget, much like the real world of engineering, we created a wind tunnel out of supplies in a closet next to our classroom."

Shelby CochranCochran watched NASA’s final shuttle launch alongside Marshall Space Flight Center workers. (Jeff Hanson)

A box fan, a piece of hard plastic, duct tape, cardboard boxes, a scale, a stick and numerous homemade paper airplanes each played significant roles, Cochran says.

In the summer, Cochran attended one of NASA's Advanced Rocketry Workshops, a Huntsville seminar for University Student Launch participants. She says she hopes the knowledge and experience gained there will advance Team Rocket Girls' knowledge and better prepare them for next year's competition.

It also enabled her to tour buildings on the arsenal and visit the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

"We had the great honor of being in the room with the workers at Marshall when the last shuttle launched," Cochran says. "I was in the presence of some of the greatest minds of our time, the engineers and scientists that built these modern miracles.

"The energy in the room was electric. Everyone counted down the last 10 seconds and all applauded, cheered and whistled when Atlantis left the ground. It was not only a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but also a life-changing one at that."

"Days like this truly make me realize that I am in the right place at UA."

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Lauren Musselman is an August 2011 graduate with a master's degree from the advertising and public relations program. She served as a student writer for the College of Engineering during summer 2011.

This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.