New Mexico Wing members stepped up for the second straight year to assist U.S. Military Academy cadets launching hypersonic, suborbital rockets as part of West Point’s Space Engineering and Applied Research – Hypersonic Rocket Team program.
The Civil Air Patrol members helped the West Point team find and recover the rockets after launch.
The project is designed to provide the participating cadets with hands-on experience in designing and launching rockets, with an ultimate goal of putting a West Point satellite in orbit. It’s a senior capstone project for West Point cadets — future U.S. Army officers — involving real-world engineering research in areas relevant to national security and defense.
Conducted by the academy’s Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering,, the program was established in 2019 and produced its first successful rocket launch that year.
Each year the cadets, with faculty guidance, have worked to improve their two-stage rocket designs. The near-term goal is to reach an altitude of 100 kilometers — the “Karman Line,” official boundary of space.
The New Mexico Wing became involved in 2022, when CAP aircraft and a ground team helped search for the rockets after they landed. Ground searchers located one of the projectiles deep in desert sand after a high-speed impact.
As the West Point team planned for this year’s flights, it again requested Civil Air Patrol support.
“This is an exciting project, and we are very happy to be able to help the West Point team with this important educational activity,” said Col. Annette Peters, New Mexico Wing commander.
The first launch came at Spaceport America, south of Truth or Consequences, shortly after sunrise — a schedule intended to avoid New Mexico’s notorious springtime winds.
Climbing nearly 75 kilometers, the rocket traveled downrange much farther than intended — some 38 miles.
White Sands Missile Range radar placed the impact point within the range’s restricted area, where neither ground access nor overflight was permitted.
The West Point team immediately began analyzing videos of the launch and found problems with the rail that guided the rocket as it lifted off. They returned to the launch pad, lowered the tower that holds the rail, and conducted a detailed inspection.
They then disassembled and then reassembled it, carefully realigning and securing each segment.
The second launch followed, producing much closer impacts. The first stage was quickly recovered after falling within view, only a few hundred feet from the launch pad.
The second stage fell about 2 miles away. A West Point contractor and a cadet boarded a CAP aircraft at the spaceport, carrying radio equipment to detect the rocket’s telemetry transmissions.
By the time they flew over the impact point, the West Point cadets had already recovered the rocket. The projectile’s fins had apparently detached from the second stage in midair, causing erratic behavior.
The next morning the third rocket— larger than the previous two — streaked into the sky. Its second stage also flew erratically.
Radar revealed the first-stage impact point nearby, and the West Pointers, quickly dug it out of the ground.
The second stage landed a few miles away. Once again, a West Point contractor and a cadet boarded the CAP aircraft and took off, hoping to detect the rocket’s telemetry signal from the air.
Meanwhile, both West Point and New Mexico Wing ground teams headed for the position indicated by the White Sands range’s radar.
As the CAP aircraft circled overhead, detecting no telemetry signal, the ground teams began searching.
Ground searchers from the Socorro Composite Squadron spread out into a line and advanced methodically toward the radar-provided GPS coordinates.
Only a few hundred feet from that GPS position, 1st Lt. Avelonia Quarrie — the squadron’s aerospace education officer — suddenly yelled out: “I think I see something!”
The others quickly converged on the scene and immediately spotted the rocket on the ground, remnants of its parachute close by. The West Point team, hearing the announcement, soon followed them.
“Just like last year, the Civil Air Patrol team made the find. We greatly appreciate their expertise and help,” said Army Maj. Jacob Reddington, lead faculty adviser for the West Point cadet engineering team.
“We didn’t hit our goal of 100 kilometers this year, but we did learn a lot,” Reddington said. “Learning is the primary purpose of this project, so this was a success.
“It’s great to have Civil Air Patrol as a partner in what is a very valuable experience for our cadets.”
“I am proud of our team,” said Lt. Col. James Steele, CAP project officer and the New Mexico Wing’s homeland security officer.
“We demonstrated our capabilities —both aerial and ground searches — to all the agencies involved and showed an excellent level of professionalism while doing it,” Steele said.
The operation required extensive planning and collaboration among West Point, CAP, the spaceport, and White Sands.
The spaceport and CAP now have a memorandum of agreement specifying that Spaceport America may “utilize the services of CAP and its volunteers” for its operations.
As the operation wound down and the New Mexico Wing crew left for home, the common farewell was, “See you next year.”
Lt. Col. David G. Finley
Public Affairs Officer
Socorro Composite Squadron
New Mexico Wing