Going up? Alumni help USST push limits of space travel

By Kirk Sibbald

Space TeamUniversity of Saskatchewan Space Team (USST) members work in a world far ahead of their time, but it's their connection with the past that pushes the students into the future.

For three years the USST has travelled to Elevator 2010: The Space Elevator Games, and each time they returned home as champions. Their success has been documented by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Maclean's, Popular Science, CBC, MSNBC and the Discovery Channel, just to name a few. NASA also named them as one of the organizations it believes could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

It has been one heck of a ride, admits USST president Clayton Ruszkowski, who's also quick to point out that without alumni support, the team would likely be grounded. Alumni donations accounted for much of the team's $300,000 budget last year, and Ruszkowski expects that assistance to continue growing alongside the team and its groundbreaking technology.

"We were told by a lot of people that alumni would find something like this really interesting and unique," he said, "because it's a University project yet something they can get involved in directly."

"It has been extremely valuable, because without all that we wouldn't be able to do what we're doing."

And the word valuable, notes Ruszkowski, means more than just money. Alumni have also been forthcoming with business advice, hands-on help and technical expertise, forming a solid base of support.

As for the technology, its capabilities are revolutionary. In the NASA-sponsored competition, teams compete against time to raise their homemade "climbers" up a thin tether using their own power source. The idea, says NASA, is to one day use such climbers in transporting materials and people into space without using rockets.

University of Saskatchewan Space Team (USST)

Matthew Evans (L) and Clayton Ruszkowski explain how the climber works.

Photo credit OCN

For last year's competition, the USST's power source consisted of a nine kilowatt laser beam converted into mechanical energy by solar panels. The laser had a range of about 250 kilometres, so the Federal Aviation Administration was forced to restrict air space while the USST was competing.

Yes, it has been a rapid climb to the top for these 40 or so Engineering and Business students who started out a few years ago building prototypes with Lego and discount store items.

"The recent success (of the USST) demonstrates that the quality of the students and education are as good or better than any in the world," said Morrel Bachynski, president of MPB Technologies and a sponsor of his alma mater's space team.

Bachynski graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a Bachelor of Engineering in 1952 and a Master's degree in 1953. He said sponsoring the team was an easy decision considering several members of his company's space research group are also graduates of the U of S.

Reid Bews, president of WRT Equipment, graduated from the College of Engineering in 1989. His road construction business employed Ruszkowski as a summer student, and after seeing the young man's enthusiasm for the project, decided he would also donate to the team.

"It was hard to say no," Bews admitted. "The accomplishments of the USST are impressive, to say the least, although we should not be surprised. The U of S College of Engineering has a long tradition of being resourceful, progressive and successful."

Although the team has won the space games three years running, the event has a catch. In order to qualify for the prize money, which last year was $500,000, the winning team must meet or exceed a set speed. Last year that limit was 2 m/sec, and the USST clocked in at 1.8 m/sec.

Victory on that October day last fall in Utah was bittersweet, but Ruszkowski is confident the USST will be even better prepared this year when the stakes are raised to a whopping $900,000 first place prize.

That's not to say there isn't considerable work to be done over the next few months. The tether used in last year's competition was 120 metres long, and this year it will be a kilometre. The speed required to win the grand prize has also more than doubled, jumping from 2 m/sec to 5 m/sec.

"But we're capable of doing it," insists Ruszkowski. "It is going to take a lot of time and tinkering, but we haven't even stretched the legs of what our system is able to do. At this time, it is the most advanced power-beaming system in the world."

For now, Ruszkowski is turning his attention back to academics. Although he says professors have been very accommodating granting extensions, there is still a pile of work to be done in between USST design work, interview requests and the competition itself. He will be graduating with a Mechanical Engineering degree this year, but says he plans to remain with the team as a mentor for younger students.

And while Ruszkowski's future plans involve starting up his own business, he is more immediately excited about watching a Calgary Flames game in March from the private box of Doc Seaman, another alumni connection. Doc, along with brothers Don and B.J., are the USST's title sponsors and they've invited members of the team to be their guests at an upcoming game.

"For a kid who grew up playing hockey, I never thought I'd be able to watch a game like that; it was a dream. It will be pretty cool, that's for sure."


Kirk Sibbald is a Communications Officer and writer for On Campus News at the University of Saskatchewan.