WIALD group
Members of WIALD are pictured here with Jillian Marsh of Millennium Engineering holding the PTS-4 canister for their IMU payload. This canister was integrated directly into the rocket body.

Six months ago, most members of the Women in Aerospace Leadership and Development (WIALD) student organization didn’t know what an inertial measurement unit (IMU) was. Now, thanks to networking and a generous donation from Millennium Engineering and Integration Company (MEI), they built three IMUs and launched them to the edge of space.

An IMU is an electronic device that measures and reports a spacecraft’s velocity, orientation and gravitational forces. WIALD built three of these units and launched them aboard Space Loft 6, a mission funded by the Department of Defense Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office and that offered the additional payload space required. The purpose of the project is to find Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) products to construct an IMU. By testing cheaper versions of professional grade products WIALD hopes that future missions can quickly assemble IMUs with decreased cost and production time and still obtain accurate results.

The idea for the project began after Katie Lodrige, WIALD Vice President, and Shaina Shapiro (BS ASE ’11) interned with MEI at ORS offices in New Mexico this past summer. They worked with Launch and Range Chief Engineer Steven Buckley, who complimented the women’s knowledge and work ethic. After Katie and Shaina’s successful eight weeks in New Mexico, MEI encouraged WIALD to consider an IMU payload as their next project and provided the funding.

 After working hard to develop a proposal, WIALD’s IMU payload was selected to launch aboard a ballistic rocket from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Reaching the edge of space once launched, the IMUs will capture and record important data to inform future ORS missions.

“This project is a big advance for us,” WIALD founder Rebekah Sosland said. “This IMU payload is going much higher in altitude than the camera we built last year. It will reach the edge of space and remain in zero-gravity for approximately four minutes.”

In addition to providing hands-on experience for a group of mostly underclassmen, the project has allowed for a great deal of leadership growth – one of the driving forces behind WIALD.

“We set deadlines and frequently go beyond our normal meeting times to hit our targets,” External Vice President Bryse Ed said. “We have volunteer team leads for each part of the project who take on the responsibility of meeting MEI’s requirements and keeping the larger group on track.”

The women honed their networking and presentation skills on the project by asking for input from other engineers to create the most cost- and time-efficient IMUs.

“We’ve really had to network to make this project possible,” Lodrige said. “We’ve asked for help from the Electrical Engineering Department and from many graduate students in our department.”

While previous projects have provided the women with practical, hands-on experience, this year’s project has provided a new set of professional skills to prepare them for industry positions. The team had to write a nine-page proposal and budget to set the project in motion and they are required to write a report about their findings and deliver a formal presentation after the launch.

The women are extremely grateful for their alumni connections at MEI who made the project possible – Founder and Chairman, Brian McKee ’80, Vice President of Corporate Development, Dan Deans ’90, and Launch Integration Lead Engineer, Jill Marsh ’09. 

“Mentoring these women throughout the project has been a wonderful experience. They are learning how to procure hardware, develop timelines, communicate and work as a team to design and assemble a complex system. This is exactly the type of experience industry demands and what MEI wants to see in future employees.” Jillian Marsh said.

The big day finally arrived on April 5, 2012. WIALD’s IMU payload was successfully launched at Spaceport America in New Mexico and reentered at White Sands Missile Range for retrieval and analysis.

“The launch was a huge success!” WIALD president Sarah Hand said. “It launched at 8:18am on April 5. The flight was 14 minutes and reached a little over 73 miles high. This is above the earth’s atmosphere, in real space. The rocket remained in space for four minutes and re-entered with a sonic boom! We have verified that all of our IMUs collected data and we will be processing it over the next couple of weeks. This was an unbelievable opportunity for the WIALD women and we learned so much from our experience.”

For more information about WIALD, visit their website

To learn more about the ASE/EM student projects and/or to support our teams, please contact Bliss Angerman at 512-232-7085 or bliss.angerman@austin.utexas.edu