University of Minnesota provides launchpad for AEM senior Nathan Bellefeuille

The aerospace engineering major and Rocket Team member aims high after graduation

May 8, 2023

Earlier this year, Nathan Bellefeuille received a motor in the mail. A large hunk of metal weighing about 40 pounds, it belonged to the first rocket he was ever in charge of building—and up until then, it had been lost in California’s Mojave Desert.

That motor is just one of the mementos that Bellefeuille, who is graduating in May from the College of Science and Engineering, will keep from his four years on the University of Minnesota’s student-led Rocket Team.

In this Q&A, the aerospace engineering senior shares how he cultivated his interest in aircraft design, his favorite Rocket Team experiences, his plans post-graduation, and yes, the story behind the lost motor.

When did you know you wanted to major in aerospace engineering?

As a kid, my dad would take me out to the airfield. He would turn on the radio scanner, and we would listen to all the pilots talk and watch the planes. That was when I knew I wanted to be some sort of engineer. I actually started out in mechanical engineering, but after I joined Rocket Team my freshman year, I realized I wanted to learn more specifically about fluid mechanics and control systems as they relate to aircraft. I was actually in the middle of getting my pilot's license when I started school here. That was really cool because I was able to relate a lot of my classwork back to experiences that I had flying a plane.

What’s something that stands out to you about your time in CSE?

Rocket Team was the thing that really persisted throughout all my years of college. I put a lot of time into it, and it was a lot of hard work, but the payoff was incredible. I have so many stories associated with Rocket Team, like the countless nights we spent in the lab until 2 a.m. working on something again and again to really make it happen. It's really difficult work, but it’s the most amazing feeling to watch something that you put a ton of work into come together.

Do you have any favorite experiences associated with Rocket Team?

We have to launch our rockets in deserts, usually in New Mexico or California. My sophomore year, I became the project lead for our High Altitude Rocket. We built a rocket and tried to fly it at a launch site in the Mojave Desert in California. It ended up breaking apart in the air, and we watched the actual motor of the vehicle fly off into the distance. We walked for about six hours through the desert trying to find it and never did. Then, about three or four months later, some people at the launch site in California found it. They just posted a picture of it on the launch site’s Facebook page one day, and we were like, “Oh my God! That's ours!” So, I had them ship it to my house, and it looks pretty cool.

How will your CSE experiences help you in your future career?

I got to take a lot of technical electives at the U, which was great, but Rocket Team taught me more than theory. We basically design our rockets from a blank piece of paper. It starts with an idea, and then you use what you learned in class to validate whether the parts will be strong enough or whether your aerodynamics check out. And, we become better designers because we do a lot of the manufacturing ourselves. Also this year, I’ve been more involved in the administrative and leadership side of things, which was great because I learned a whole new set of skills that I hadn't practiced before.

What are your plans after graduation?

I'm planning to do my master’s in aerospace engineering here at the University of Minnesota. I’ve been working in Professor Chris Hogan’s research lab on a joint project with folks in the mechanical engineering and aerospace departments focusing on hypersonic particle impact. I really enjoy the work I'm doing there, and by applying to a master’s program, I can continue my research and see some of the projects through. Then, I'll move on to industry. I’m hoping to get into spacecraft or launch vehicles. Space seems like the next frontier, and I want to be a part of that.

Interview by Olivia Hultgren

If you’d like to support students and programs in the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, visit our CSE Giving website.