In an unopened box in a dark room at 1410 Engineering Dr. sits an abundance of fiberglass parts and epoxy glue. They were to be assembled into a rocket that would compete in a mid-May competition. Local chapter members of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) worked tirelessly all year in preparation for the day they would finally receive their parts and begin building. But now the pieces sit abandoned, waiting for the engineers to return.
The UW-Madison chapter of AIAA is a student organization dedicated to professional development in the aerospace engineering field. Members stay involved in a variety of ways, including attending special lectures and connecting with Engineering Physics faculty at “Friday After Class” events. This year, they spent the vast majority of their time preparing for the Midwest Rocket Launch (MRL) — designing, working out equations, and running simulations for the rocket with which they would compete.
Chapter president Sam Jaeger had just received construction pieces when UW students got an email informing them they would not be returning to campus after spring break due to the new coronavirus pandemic. “We finally got the parts, we submitted our report, we were about the build,” Jaeger says, “and then everything had to go online.”
Their hard work was halted and the MRL was postponed until fall, when they will perform a virtual launch by submitting a video to the competition. Since the students were in the “build phase” of their preparations, they’re unable to continue to work until in-person meetings resume.
But AIAA is still finding ways to stay connected with members. The leadership created a Discord server to conduct virtual meetings and promote discussion. They even started an AIAA summer book club which meets every few weeks; the current selection is “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Col. Chris Hadfield.
“It is more difficult to cater to a wider variety of people since we have a limited range of events,” says AIAA vice president Will DeVerter. Many of the members are most passionate about competing in rocketry events, and an online format is not conducive to that pursuit. Others may be eager to connect with Engineering Physics faculty, but might not be as excited to take part in a book club. “It’s unfortunate that we can’t cater to everyone given the circumstances, but we are committed to doing what we can online in the meantime.”
Ben Bates, a member of the AIAA chapter, says he is grateful to still have a tether to the club. “I definitely miss the way it used to be and it is unfortunate that the competitions are delayed,” he says, “but it is nice to stay in touch with friends and keep updated on developments in the field.”
With all the instability students have faced as a result of the coronavirus, AIAA is able to provide some security. “Regardless of the situation, the leaders in AIAA continue to make themselves available to assist students in their aerospace and professional development,” says DeVerter.
“Our purpose is to ignite and celebrate aerospace ingenuity and collaboration, and its importance to our way of life,” reads AIAA’s website. “Our promise is to be your vital lifelong link to the aerospace community and a champion for its achievements.” The UW-Madison chapter remains dedicated to its parent organization’s mission by staying connected in the face of adversity.