Aerospace Club Courtesy Photo

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Aerospace Club is composed of students from a variety of majors who share a common interest in developing the tools of scientific discovery. 

On March 17, the club won first place in a video competition held by the NASA Nebraska Space Grant, from which the club receives most of its funding. The club’s video highlighted how the grant has impacted the club and allows students to grow, develop and explore a variety of aerospace interests.

Now, the Aerospace Club is struggling to communicate and complete group projects after the university closed due to COVID-19. As a result, they have to find ways to continue working as a team while social distancing.

Senior chemical engineering major Conner Vokoun is serving as this year’s club president. While he continues to reside on campus, many club members have returned home, causing difficulties accessing the metal, carbon fiber, electrical components and chemicals needed to execute the club’s projects.

“The week leading up to when the university closed, I kind of got the feeling that we would have to move to more remote work,” Vokoun said. “I spent a lot of time going through our club’s inventory and making sure we had a check-out system in place so if teams need to go off campus, they could have access to tools that they would need to continue their project.”

The club is divided into six different design teams to allow a variety of different focus groups to cover everything from rockets, drones, moon rovers, planes and satellites. Each design team focuses on its own project for future competitions. Most of the club’s competitions take place in the spring, but due to COVID-19, they have been canceled throughout the past few weeks. 

Vokoun and his leadership team have been distributing information as they get it to keep the group connected. The group has utilized messaging and voice chat platforms such as Slack and Disboard to help communicate and alleviate the social distancing loneliness some members are feeling.

Graduate student Nate Jensen, a former club vice president, is the club’s longest-standing member and has been involved in each design team at one point or another during his six years at UNL. As a graduate student, Jensen said he has had less of a leadership role and more of a consulting role in the past two years.

“The hardest part for me has been watching a lot of the teams and their morale after all of this because of competitions being canceled and moving off campus,” Jensen said. “A lot of these people were very excited to see the fruits of their work come to fruition. Now they can’t see that, or they’re going to see it in a different form. And that’s been difficult on a lot of the club members.”

Whether the group’s competitions have been called off or completed, the team has continued to work diligently and look for different areas to grow. The drone team continues to hold weekly meetings as they search for ways to work on their drone off campus.

Sophomore biology major Phoebe Pena serves as the safety officer for her second year in the club. As safety officer, she is responsible for running the required safety training for the entire club to ensure they can access the lab space at Nebraska Hall. Pena is currently on the Rocketry, 100K and Robotics design teams. Since Rocketry is in the manufacturing stage of their projects, Pena said they use chemicals that aren’t safe to use in a non-ventilated area without the proper equipment.

“That’s one of the issues that we are trying to work through because having the access that the building gave us was our main way of being able to manufacture the tubes and other rocket parts that we need,” Pena said.

The Rocketry group plans on having more design work for members to continue practicing during this time of uncertainty. Pena said they have also continued to reach out to one another to get through this difficult time.

“Just because we can’t physically meet in person doesn’t mean we necessarily have to stop socializing as a club,” Pena said.

Jensen hopes that groups continue to focus on communicating and informing their team as well as receive feedback from members.

“When [the rocketry team’s] competition was canceled, I think one of the first things they did was ask the team for suggestions for what they wanted to do moving forward,” Jensen said. “Not just making executive decisions, but being open with all of their members has been really good.”

Eric Vander Woude, a sophomore mechanical engineering major and the club’s reporter, runs their social media accounts and website, in addition to creating promotional material. In a time of social separation, Vander Woude said his job doesn’t play quite as large a role as normal. However, he has found ways to continue promoting the club and its achievements.

“Even though things didn’t progress as the original plan, progress is still being made,” Vander Woude said. “Even if that final goal isn’t completed, every large goal is made up of smaller goals, and you can always highlight the smaller goals.”

Vander Woude said he will miss the community and the chance to create with like-minded people, but he’s confident the group will begin next fall with a strong start.

“As people,” he said, “we never grow without having a challenge to overcome.”

This article was modified at 11:55 p.m. on March 31 to correct Jensen's role to former vice president.