The snake may have been poisonous, maybe not. Chest-deep in swamp water, no way Caleb Pace was getting close enough to make sure one way or the other.
"I didn't want to find out. All I knew is that it was a snake,'" he says. "I said 'It's probably about time to get out.'"
Besides, he was searching for something far more important as he waded through the mucky, murky water in the swamp near Tampa, Florida.
He needed to find Phoenix.
That's the name the UTC engineering team gave the bright-orange rocket that would propel them to the No. 1 ranking in the country for student-built rocket projects. Phoenix vaulted to more than 11,000 feet, a number that drew an audience-wide gasp at the ceremonies where the team — the Rocket Mocs — were announced as the best in the U.S.
"Not only did we break the altitude record for the competition, we were first in every category, in every single thing," Ashwyn Sam, a senior in mechanical engineering and math says, pride practically beaming out in streaks of light from his words.
For the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space Rocketry Contest, those categories include research papers and computational mathematics written prior to launch, design and post-launch reports, videos of the launch, documenting the velocity and altitude of the rocket and — perhaps most importantly — having the rocket in hand after it lands.
But Phoenix was lost in the sawgrass and muck of the swamp, a little over a mile from where it was launched. Without the actual rocket and the data-gathering equipment inside, the team would be out of the running in the rocketry contest, not even considered as a possible winner.
"I remember thinking, 'If we don't find this rocket, nobody's gonna know the stuff we went through; nobody's gonna know how hard we worked for this because nobody will believe us,'" Sam says.
After months of late-night/early morning work sessions, pouring over computations and diagrams in mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering; running computer simulations to test the plans, building and rebuilding the three rockets used in the competition, the idea of being stymied at the very end was completely unacceptable.
"All of what went into the trip, driving eight hours to get down there, then launching this rocket just to lose it in a swamp was not going to cut it," Pace says. "There was no way we could just give up on it."
INTO THE SWAMP
Standing on the edge of the swamp, however, the team had absolutely no idea where Phoenix had fallen. The GPS device in the plummeting rocket had cut off at 200 feet, seconds before it was swallowed by the brown water.
"Four of our team members actually got in the swamp with their tennis shoes, shorts and just T-shirts," Sam says. "This is dangerous. It's sharp grass; the water is up to your chest. We assume there are alligators in there. I mean, it is a swamp in Florida. But we wanted to win it so bad."
Yet the mixture of looming disappointment, creeping worry and never-give-up attitude was just the cherry on the top of an engineering sundae that had been something of a culinary disaster up to that point.
Pace was one of the team members who plunged into the swamp in the search for Phoenix, forging into water so brown he couldn't see through it.
"I honestly wasn't super-concerned," he says.
At least until he ran into a fat layer of sticky sludge that floated on top of the water in places, a 3- to 4-inch-thick sheet of decaying vegetation that he had to, at times, literally lift his foot out of the water and step on to get through. In places, it behaved almost like a living thing that wanted to encircle him and drag him under, he says.
"I walked into it and it actually wrapped around my waist and then came up behind me," he says.
Team members first got together in January, all brand-new to rocket building but all in a class taught by Trevor Elliott, assistant professor in mechanical engineering. As team adviser, he didn't mince words when the six new Rocket Mocs showed up, Sam recalls.
"He said, 'If you are to join this team, you must take this seriously and you have to have the mindset of winning first place,'" the student recalls. "He specifically said, 'We're gonna win first place if you join this team,' and his confidence and his, I guess, tone meant that he was very serious when he said that. I was like, 'OK, I want to be a part of this. I want to be a part of whatever will push me to be national champions.' "
No sense in trying to sugarcoat the challenge, Elliott says. In rocketing, it's sink or swim or, more accurately, fly or crash.
"I try to encourage my teams to push the envelope," Elliott says. "I try to temper it where I can because, you know, as you push down more, it's more likely that you'll have a failure."
Fail the team did. Right off the bat. Their first launch, which took place in North Carolina, had mechanical problems and sputtered to about 4,000 feet, nowhere near high enough.
"We were all pretty bummed out," Sam says.
FAILURE TO SUCCESS
The debut rocket took two weeks to build, Sam says, but the second one took only a night. The team was smart enough to carry a second rocket with them to that first launch. Returning to their hotel, they modified it until about 2 a.m., using what they'd learned from the first failure.
"We crammed up and got together in one hotel room, and we built another rocket real quick," Sam says. "Of course, we already had a lot of it built, but we brought supplies just in case, and it worked out."
At 7:30 the next morning, they headed out to the launching field, full of cautious optimism. That didn't last long. The computer brain of the second rocket "was glitching" from the get-go, Sam says, and it failed, too. This time, the team went from "bummed" to "devastated," he says.
They were packing up to head home when Sam, after reading through the computer's instruction manual, discovered a possible solution for the rocket's brain.
"I was like, 'Guys, wait. Just one more thing. Let's try it.'"
So they tried, making the adjustments and placing the rocket on the launch pad again. "We all were so excited and like, 'This is gonna work,' " Sam says.
It didn't. In fact, it did worse than the previous launch. "Everything just shattered," he recalls.
Back to basics. Back home. Back to late nights. Back to cautious optimism but, this time, tempered with genuine worry.
"Time was running out," Pace says.
But the team wouldn't give up and decided at the last-minute to head to Tampa the following weekend.
"We were standing in the lab at midnight the night before we were supposed to leave. We were going to leave in a few hours and we were running tests on the rocket itself," Pace says. "We all just jumped in feet first together and whipped out another trip out of nowhere."
A SHRED OF HOPE
After a day roaming around the swamp near Tampa, the team was still empty-handed; the bright-orange Phoenix was still floating — or sunk — out in the wild.
With no GPS, finding the rocket was pretty much a matter of chancing across it by luck. That was never going to work. But giving up wasn't an option either.
Elliott, still at home in Chattanooga, started trying to track down the man who originally created the GPS unit, eventually finding him in Colorado. Elliott gave the team the man's home phone number and, while he couldn't use his personal equipment to help track Phoenix, he did have an idea of how they might be able to find it.
"When I called them to give them the info for the guy that made the GPS tracking system — I don't normally do this for teams or think about it in this way — but this team wanted and put so much into it so bad, when I hung up with them I actually prayed that they would find it because they deserved it," Elliott says.
Possibilities in hand and heart, the team went out that night and bought a drone with a camera. About 2 in the morning, some of them were out in the hotel parking lot, learning how to fly it.
At the same time inside the hotel room, others pulled out the pencils and calculators and revved up their math skills. They had the coordinates from the rocket GPS' last signal at 200 feet plus the video they'd taken of the launch and descent.
"So, based on the wind speed, based on how high it is, based on how fast it's going up and down, its vertical velocity, horizontal velocity, we did the math and we created our own path," Sam says. "We basically just extrapolated the rest of the data and mathematically said: This is where it should be."
And that was enough for the time being.
"We learned the power of a little shred of hope," Sam says.
The next morning they stopped by a local fishing store and bought some waders then, with equipment and equations in hand, they faced the swamp for the second day. Even with time pressing down, convincing someone to head back into murky water took some time. Eventually, Sullivan and Pace volunteered, although Sullivan admits it wasn't an easy decision until he considered the future.
"I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life, for the next 60, 70 years, if I didn't go look one more time for this rocket because this rocket meant so much to all of us," he says.
Alligators and snakes and other dangers never left his mind, he says, but he pushed past them.
"I thought, 'If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen, but I hope that nothing happens to me. I hope there's somebody watching down over me, and I'm just gonna do it and I'm not gonna think about it.'"
Hopes for the camera- carrying drone were dashed when they discovered there were too many trees in the way. But video was a necessary part of the package to be handed over to contest judges, so Sullivan held a video camera while Pace carried a phone that connected back to Sam, who was standing on the shore, using the equations to tell them, "Go 15 feet to your left" or "Turn to your right and head 10 feet."
And it worked.
"It was exactly where we calculated it to be. On the spot," Sam says. "It was like life was pushing us to see how much, how far could we go. But getting in the swamp and finding it, that was the ultimate testament of perseverance, of pushing through."
But they weren't out of the water yet.
THE QUIET BEEP
Recording the rocket's ultimate height is the role of a device that sends out a series of beeps that can be translated into real numbers. Trouble is, like the GPS, the Phoenix's beeper had been underwater for more than 24 hours. And when the rocket was carried to dry land, it wasn't working.
"That's a huge problem. It has to beep for us to win this," Sam says.
After letting the rocket dry out for a while, they tried again, this time inside a car to prevent outside noise from drowning out the beep.
"Pin-drop silence, yeah," Sam remembers. "No one's even breathing at this point. We want to make sure we hear the beeps. This is super-silent."
Everyone has their head down near the rocket, listening, waiting, hoping, sweating.
Then the beeps emerge. Not loud, but loud enough.
"It went from super-silence to everyone starts yelling; the car starts shaking; the people outside probably thought we were crazy because we just start yelling for no reason," Sam says.
"But we got it."
Shawn Ryan is executive staff writer for communications and marketing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Email him at email@example.com.