At RPL, we pride ourselves on manufacturing almost every rocket component in-house. Using a manual lathe and mill, we machine a variety of parts for various subsystems, which means that there is a wide range of materials that lab members work with. From metal to composites, these materials serve vastly different purposes in different parts of the rocket. In addition to learning how to machine, each machinist also gains the valuable understanding of how to design and engineer parts that are actually machinable.
Since rockets are cylindrical, most components that we integrate into each vehicle are machined on the lathe. Most prominently are bulkheads and nozzles, which seal the motor pressure on the forward and aft ends of the vehicle, respectively. These and other parts are typically machined from 6061-T6 aluminum, fiberglass, phenolic, and
or graphite. Using a range of different materials forces our machinists to understand the in's and out's of the lathe, and how each material must be treated differently.
The machinist team is constantly training new members because every year the most experienced machinists graduate, and a new crop of young students take on the challenge of machining precision flight hardware. To become a machinist in RPL one must go through at least one semester of consistent training.
For parts that aren’t perfectly symmetrical, the mill is necessary to cut off centered features and drill hole patterns. This is especially useful for the avionics and recovery systems, which have many asymmetrical mounting and construction features. The mill is also used to make tooling that helps with other manufacturing processes such as propellant casting and composite layups