ClubHop: Columbia Space Initiative

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ALMA (Advanced Lunar-Mars Architecture), a recent design by CSI RASC-AL – distant relative of Alma mater?

Today, Bwog Science brings you a clubhop on Columbia Space Initiative (CSI), “a group of students and professors dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge in near-space, space, and beyond.” Although the club is relatively new (started in 2015), it has already accomplished much, attending national competitions at Cape Canaveral and sending a stuffed animal Roaree up 100,000 feet into the atmosphere.

Once thought impossible, space exploration is a definite reality of our present time, with initiatives such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX (goal to settle Mars) and NASA’s ongoing investigations into life outside of Earth. Columbia Space Initiative represents an eclectic group of individuals united by a passion for space, who engage in a wide variety of activities that allow them to explore their interests. The club meets in Mudd 233 from 4-6pm on Fridays (with additional meeting times for various projects).

I recently sat down with four leaders of CSI: Current Co-President Leon Kim (SEAS ‘19), Incoming Co-President Leena Chen (BC ‘20), Outreach Director Cleo Payne (BC ‘21), and Co-Leader of CSI’s RASC-AL competition team Aaron Pickard (GS/JTS ‘20). Representing different schools and diverse majors (from engineering to pure math to the humanities), the four of them illustrated a vibrant community that has something to offer to anybody, from any background, with an interest in space.

Kim described CSI’s goal as “spreading the love of space within and outside of the Columbia community,” joking that they were building a “community of space nerds.” The board members emphasized CSI’s nature as an engineering club, focusing on tangible hands-on missions and projects, rather than as a science club, which largely focuses on research and literature review. Established in 2015, CSI is still relatively new, but has already accomplished impressive feats. The group successfully launched a stuffed animal version of Roaree into space, and designed a commercially viable space station that won them a trip to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Alumni from CSI have gone on to work in aerospace, including startups such as Infinite Orbits.

The board stressed the interdisciplinary nature of their club. Members have all sorts of interests, from education to hands-on projects for competitions, with skills as diverse as the ability to perform complex math derivations as well as effective communication for community outreach. The club primarily consists of students majoring in mechanical engineering, physics, computer science, and electrical engineering, but all students of any field are welcome (Payne, an ancient studies major, emphasized this fact).

future rocket scientists!

About 70 active members are in CSI, but the club itself is essentially divided into smaller subgroups, each of which works on their own projects. (Pickard described CSI as “Hillel for the rocket scientists”.) For instance, RASC-AL is a university-level competition sponsored by NASA, which allows teams from different universities to participate in design challenges. Last year, the CSI RASC-AL Team designed a commercially viable space station that had a reduced volume during launch, but which could later expand in space due to the pressure differential. The design also included ECLSS (Environmental Control and Life Support Systems), essentially an integrated biosystem of plants that could help with air and water purification. The team made it to finals, where they presented at a conference in front of a panel of judges representing the spaceflight industry and NASA. This year, Columbia’s RASC-AL Team is working on a hybrid propulsion system that will incorporate solar energy for more efficient propulsion in interplanetary space exploration.

The CSI board also described a second subgroup, the Aero Design Challenge, a second design challenge hosted by NASA. Last year, CSI won first place with their design of a novel commercial airline that consumes less fuel, releases less emissions, and operates more quietly. The Aero Design Challenge subgroup had different students focusing on aerodynamics, airframe, and propulsion. This challenge required lots of on-paper design, with the team producing a research paper that outlined the important sections of design, inherent risks as well as risk reduction, and pages of figures (lots of math!). This year, the team is working on designs for urban drone delivery through digital twin modeling, a system that pairs physical aircrafts with digital twins in a computer. The physical aircraft includes sensors that can be used to recreate the model on the computer, track the physical model’s status, and make intelligent decisions for the aircraft.

Chen proceeded to describe the math she’s encountered during her time at CSI: inside-and-out aerodynamics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics through computer simulations, computation fluid dynamics, ANSYS Fluent, Python for propulsion… To be honest, math definitely isn’t my favorite subject, but I enjoyed Chen’s explanations of the applications of math in physics and aerospace.

Besides RASC-AL and the Aero Design Challenge group, CSI also has teams that do more hands-on work. For example, CSI’s Rocketry Team is currently designing and building a liquid- and solid-fuel hybrid engine in preparation for the Intercollegiate Rocketry Engineering Competition in New Mexico this summer. The Microgravity team is developing tools to be used in a microgravity environment, with the hope of travelling to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas as the winners of their respective competition. Also, CSI’s Balloon Team is working on a roccoon (rocket + balloon), basically a balloon that will travel up to 70-80,000 feet, launch a rocket from the balloon, and collect data using their payload.

Besides their participation in competitions and projects, the club also works with the surrounding community, working with organizations such as Columbia Engineering Outreach,CU Splash, Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth Foundation, and the Intrepid Museum to engage with local schoolers. Furthermore, each board member talked about the tight-knit nature of the club. Spend late nights munching on pizza, engaging in banter, and finishing up last-minute math for an upcoming competition deadline, and you’re bound to make friends! Team bonding traditions include midnight screenings of Star Wars movies, visits to the Intrepid Museum, board game nights at Hex & Co, and hang-outs with astronauts on campus (their advisor is Mike Massimino, a former NASA astronaut)!

Fascinated by space and interested in what CSI does? CSI is constantly accepting new members – new students should simply show up to the next meeting at 4-6pm in Mudd 233. If you’re a part of a science club on campus and want your group featured, email Bwog Science at

image via pexels and CSI

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