This IS rocket science

UND student team has blast furthering school’s launching tradition at annual NASA event

UND Rocket Team

Stefan Tomovic (left), Nicholas Sponsel (center) and UND Physics and Astrophysics Professor Tim Young stand next to the rocket used in this year’s NASA Student Launch in Huntsville, Ala. Young’s team, nicknamed “Frozen Fury,” took home second place for Best Website at the event. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Stefan Tomovic and Nicholas Sponsel were looking for ways to get involved on campus when physics and astrophysics professor Tim Young spoke to their class about the UND Rocket Team.

Young had just returned from the team’s annual trip to Huntsville, Ala., where NASA hosts schools from around the nation to showcase and launch their year-long rocket projects. UND has been a mainstay of the event since its inception nine years ago.

“I had just read a book about rocketry,” Tomovic, a senior electrical engineering major, said of his recruitment. “The book detailed ways electrical engineers can build rockets, and they’re really cool, so I decided to chase that.”

Sponsel was new to UND and eager to get involved in the department.

“I looked up different projects in physics when I first came here,” Sponsel, now a junior in astrophysics, recalled. “When Dr. Young came back from Huntsville and talked about the event, it got me interested.”

Two years later, they’re leaders of “Frozen Fury” — the nickname of UND’s rocket team. During 2018’s NASA Student Launch near Marshall Space Flight Center, they took home second place in Best Website.

UND Rocket Team

For this year’s challenge, the UND Rocket Team was tasked with creating an autonomous rover. In the basement of UND’s Witmer Hall, they created a testing space for the rover to use during the winter months. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Off the ground

Every August, NASA sends a handbook outlining project options for teams. The overall objective — to build a fully functional rocket — remains consistent, but the year-to-year challenge is developing accompanying payloads.

This year, Frozen Fury chose to work on an autonomous rover deployment as their rocket’s haul.

Young, who serves as adviser to the team, tries to maintain a hands-off approach as much as possible. Everything the team builds is by their own design and construction.

“The goal of the project is for them to come together as a team and complete the goals that are set in the project,” Young said. “They haven’t had much experience in rocketry, especially on the upper-amateur scale we’re talking about.”

Using his suite of expertise, Young offers insights when necessary; he rarely questions how team members utilize the information.

“Every year there’s a case where they’ll choose to do something and I go along with it,” he said. “That’s what I want to happen – for them to have a learning experience through solving problems.”

Though the Huntsville student launch is the culminating event, teams are scored on every phase of the project – from how they propose their payload choice to how they evaluate their own rocket’s performance. At these stages of reporting, they present via web conference to a panel of NASA engineers.

Learning the role

When Tomovic found himself as this year’s Team Lead, he realized it was a position without its own handbook. He wasn’t sure how to delegate, and there was more paperwork to deal with in his position.

“I’m glad I had Nick and our safety officer, Drew Ross, to help me figure things out with leadership,” Tomovic said. “When you have new and younger team members, they don’t quite have the skillset yet. They have the spirit and passion, so you have to guide them and make sure they can do what they want to do.”

He eventually came around to earn satisfaction from the amount of paperwork involved.

“Building a rocket is nice and fun, but doing it properly and following steps, procedures and designing – that’s what you learn,” he said. “All the paperwork is tedious, but it’s good. I actually kind of enjoyed it.”

“What we learned on the leadership side is that delegation is a big thing,” Sponsel added. “That’s going to be our focus next year. We won’t be leads, more advisers, but we want to make sure things are as organized as possible.”

Organization is key when a group is gaining. Young says this year’s group is the largest he’s seen, with ten going down to Alabama for the launch.

“When you have that many, the dynamics become rather important,” Young said. “This year seemed to be more cohesive as a group and they worked and communicated really well together.”

UND Rocket Team

Sponsel looks at the Frozen Fury website with Tomovic over his shoulder. Their graphic design work earned them a runner-up placing against 45 other teams from across the country. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Web excellence

Creating and maintaining a website is one of the other aspects graded by NASA. Sponsel, in designing an award-winning site this year, decided to focus more on its graphic design rather than infrastructure.

“I didn’t have last year’s site up until spring semester,” he said. “So this year I used an application with more boundaries that allowed me to have a graphics focus, rather than building an entire site from scratch.”

In addition to helping build the rocket and designing the site, Sponsel also filmed behind-the-scenes footage and took photos to accompany the page.

“We knew we had something good,” Tomovic said of the Frozen Fury website. “We looked at other teams so I thought we were going to be up there, and we were.”

Whether it’s budgeting, communicating or programming, Frozen Fury has the potential to branch beyond STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) audiences. The team has already displayed its ability to work in an interdisciplinary way.

“It’s great reaching out to other departments,” Sponsel said. “Stefan’s an electrical engineer, I’m in physics, and we probably wouldn’t have ever met if not for this team. We’re like best friends now.”

“The project is something that can open doors,” Tomovic followed. “After last year I found out about the space studies department on campus and now I’m working there. If it wasn’t for rocketry piquing my interest, I wouldn’t have discovered it.”

Students interested in joining the UND Rocket Team can contact Dr. Young at