Student Researched and Developed High Power Rocket; Political Attitudes Towards Rocket Technology in the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

Zappia, Peter, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Wayland, Kent, Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Learning from the lessons of history is a task that every generation of leaders, scientists, and engineers must diligently practice. The history of science and engineering is one of steps, missteps, corrections, and improvements. Without looking to the experience of the past it is nigh impossible to improve the future. This is particularly important in the field of weapons technologies. Technological innovation and engineering prowess have proven to be decisive factors in geopolitical conflicts from the times of the Romans through the second world war and beyond. Engineers in particular have important ethical considerations to make with respect to the subject of weapons engineering. Is engineering weapons ethical or unethical? Such a question is impossibly broad and fails to consider the necessary context required to make an ethical decision. Certainly engineering weapons is not always ethical, but it is a difficult case to argue that it is always unethical as well. Weapons engineers were essential to the Allies of WWII in their quest to stop the tyranny and genocide of the Nazis and Imperial Japanese. Weapons engineers likewise currently stand between Russia and the remnants of free Ukraine. On the other hand, engineered weapons have just as often, if not more often, been used as tools of oppression and colonization. Thus weapons engineering is not a clear cut ethical question, and requires a great degree of understanding of both the technical capabilities of specific weapons technologies and knowledge of both historical and imagined future use cases to make sound ethical judgements.

My technical capstone project is researching, designing, manufacturing, and testing a student researched and developed (SRAD) M-Class solid rocket and motor propulsion system. The incredibly valuable experience of exposing students to the complexities of designing and deploying such a significant, valuable, and versatile technology such as rocket technology serves as the project’s rationale. To accomplish this project a team of thirty undergraduate students was established and divided into sub-teams. Each sub-team researched, designed, and worked together to produce either the body of the rocket, the electronic systems of the rocket, or the propulsion system of the rocket. The research and design of all rocket systems was finished by the end of December, 2023. Further design validation and production began in January, 2024 with an eventual goal of launching the rocket in April, 2024. Ultimately, the project team did not receive approval from the Tripoli Rocket Association of Central Virginia to launch the rocket. However the team did succeed in producing the essential components of the rocket and expects to complete non-fire testing of the rocket by the end of the Spring 2024 semester.

My STS project seeks to answer the question of what political attitudes developed in the governments of the United States, Soviet Union, and People’s Republic of China towards the use of rocket technologies during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962? These two important case studies of early uses of modern rocket-powered missile technologies such as air-to-air guided missiles and short range ballistic missiles provide invaluable information to engineering leaders of today of the use cases of then-new weapons technologies. In the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis guided missiles served an important role in the resolution of the crisis, but not a history altering role. The technology served to augment an already dominant US military position over the People’s Republic of China in the Pacific and further safeguard the survival of an independent Taiwan. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, the role of the technology was supreme. From beginning to end the capabilities of rocket powered missile technology, and the attitudes toward the use of this technology developed by the leaders of the US and USSR, guided the entire course of the conflict.

Ultimately, I am satisfied with my experience of conducting this research project. I would have liked for the technical project team to have received approval to launch our rocket design, but I and the rest of the project team understand that receiving official approval is just one of many steps in the design and development process of modern rockets. The experience was incredibly valuable to us just the same. On the STS project side I also feel that I received incredible value from conducting this research project. The ability to study and critically examine interesting regions of the world during crucial periods of their history and research the effect of specific technologies on their development and place in the world was an incredibly valuable experience. I only wish I could have had more uninterrupted time to dedicate to conducting additional research and analysis of this very interesting question. Additional research could have provided a more complete picture of the role of rocket technologies in these crises and the attitudes that dictated the course of the conflicts. I would recommend to any researchers in the future who aim to conduct a similarly historically-focused project to start reading into the subject material early to give themselves the best chance of finishing their research and analysis at a satisfactory depth on time.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Taiwan, China, Sidewinder missile, Rocket Technology, Cuban Missile Crisis, Political Attitudes

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
Technical Advisors: Haibo Dong, Michael R. McPherson
STS Advisor: Kent Wayland
Technical Team Members: Ardan Abraham, Jake Bales, Alexandria Barnard-Davignon, Leo Bashaw, Tucker Benton, Marc Brightwell, Joe Burton, Christopher Camacho, Aymon Daud, Andy Delgado, Tim Edinger, Noah Hassett, Jordyn Hicks, Niklas Holle, Dylan House, Claire Kent, Connor Lothrop, Olivia Lyall, Duraan Miskinyar, Miriam Morse, Jason Nguyen, Aiden Ogle, Thomas Ortega, Aaron Osborne, Johannes Quapil, Shane Sawyer, Daniel Tohti, Dylan Tran, Jack Vietmeyer, Beth Westfall, Peter Zappia

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