By Minal Abhange
If you had asked Mark Comeau a year ago what hyperloop meant, “I don’t know” would be followed by, “I can’t even Google what hyperloop means.”
Today, after having been a part of the whole SpaceX journey (an international competition that was held in California this past August that featured SpaceX engineers putting hyperloop pod designs to the test) he has attained an in-depth knowledge on the subject.
SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.
The expression “accidents happen when destiny calls” was true for Mark and SpaceX.
“I got involved with the SpaceX competition through a friend, after attending a meeting I kind of fell into it and it happened randomly.”
Mark was part of a Paradigm Hyperloop team comprised of 40 members: 20 students from Memorial University, one from CNA, and 19 from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.
“I joined the team in April because they needed someone to take their concepts and help make them into reality when previous team members graduated,” said Mark, who managed the Manufacturing Lead for the project. “From there, I developed the manufacturing plans, sourced vendors to do the work, designed and fabricated the upgrades as well as the sponsor outreach initiatives.
“As we were all ready for the competition, one of the first glitches was a logistics holdup. We had to make the pod available at an earlier date. Although we were not ready, alternate transportation had to come up with a plan, and quick.”
He recalls they had to make arrangements for a rental truck, and three team members drove for 36 hours to ensure the delivery was on time. Luckily, they had spare time to perform checks and balances on the pod to ensure there wasn’t any damage before sending it on to SpaceX.
Narrating the phases of the competition, Mark says test week involved SpaceX engineers taking the pod apart, and running it through every test and safety check to ensure it was of sound design. These checks are inclined to test every little detail of the vehicle, followed by a safety briefing and operational procedure meeting, which is a three-hour face-to-face interaction with SpaceX professionals.
“During this meeting a small group of team members discuss information about the subsystems, operating procedures, and design guidelines to ensure everything looks good on paper. Once this is done the pod is subjected to mechanical checks; fasteners checks, destruction checks, and welding checks to ensure everything is up to par and won’t fall apart from mechanical vibration issues. The next phase of testing is done in a vacuum chamber, once a green light is given, the pod enters into the final phase of the competition to run through the test track at full speed.”
Vacuum testing is the next most crucial component of the competition before the pod is run through the test track. This is done to evaluate the electronic components of the pod are functional, and the battery, capacitor and anything that has fluid inside does not explode.
Marks explains that SpaceX has a 150-foot subtrack, which is an external track with a small pusher attached to the pod to demonstrate breaking, levitation and ensure the interface is not going to cause any problem in the main room. All these tests are done on the pod at a low speed of 10-20 miles per hour (m.p.h). Once a full control suite check is completed, the pod is run on a hyperloop track at 20-30 m.p.h.
“(The pod was put through) a low-speed function test down on the mile-long track, this was the crowning point for us as the team had never made this far,” Mark recalls.
SpaceX is a well-timed competition in all aspects. However, Mark recalls, “Everything was frozen in time that Saturday afternoon for my team when we made the top three teams to do the high-speed vacuum run. We were lost for words, until it started to sink in – it was like, ‘wait a minute we need a quick huddle’. It was one of those moments when you are over the moon. We made it this far, but the run was not done yet.”
Sharing the team’s emotions on the most awaited day he says, “We were the first team, so we didn’t actually breathe a sigh of relief or cheer until the pod stopped.
“Watching the run on the massive display screen, we were just holding our breath and thinking ‘It’s one thing to get going, but it should stop though’. And finally when they said, ‘System secure,’ it was like, the Germans and the Swiss team were behind us, we didn’t know what was going to happen, but at this point, we were just happy that we made a run. The winning pod took off at 220 m.p.h. compared to our 60 m.p.h. – there was a bit of gap there.”
Mark, who graduated from CNA’s Mechanical Engineering Manufacturing Co-op program this year, says this has been a life-changing experience.
“It’s very humbling. I never thought in a million years I would be involved with something like this. I came from the oil and gas industry and I had full intentions of returning to it. However, since being introduced to this project, my life goals, ideas have changed a lot,” Mark said.
“When you are preparing to participate in an international competition with over 1,200 teams the stakes are too high, so is the stress. Ranking second place in the world, second fastest air bearing design pod in North America and beating MIT – it was a proud moment.”
For more information about Paradigm Hyperloop visit www.paradigmhyperloop.com, or to learn more about CNA’s Mechanical Engineering Technology Co-Op program visit www.cna.nl.ca.