Rocket Science, Toothpaste, and Determination

Student combines engineering and entrepreneurship as he aims for the stars

UConn rising senior Hritish Bhargava poses with his VS1 rocket.

UConn rising senior Hritish Bhargava poses with his VS1 rocket, one of the many space and rocket-related projects he is currently working on, in the courtyard outside of the Peter J. Werth Residence Tower on campus on June 28, 2022. Bhargava said he plans to launch the rocket later this summer after a couple year of work on it and that its name derives from his parents’ initials. (Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

Hritish Bhargava ’23 (ENG) clearly remembers a particular day when he was in middle school and his teacher turned on a SpaceX rocket launch for the class to watch.

The then-eighth grader was captivated.

“I was just so energetic – I was like, ‘This thing is going so fast, imagine if there were people on there, going to space,” he says. “That feeling was like, whoa. I want to build one of those things. That’s so cool.”

The initial fascination sparked by that launch turned into a hobby for Bhargava, who began building high-powered rockets when he was in high school. In the ninth grade, he built a rocket powered by toothpaste for an honors physics class that fueled not only the rocket itself but also his growing interest in propulsion.

“I wanted to create a new type of propellant, and toothpaste has potassium nitrate in it, so I just exploited that,” he explains. “Most of the propellant that I made just had toothpaste in it, and then I launched that. Building a rocket itself was straightforward for me. I could design that on CAD and just print it or build it, whatever, that was fine. It was the propulsion – the different types of engines that are there, and how the chemistry works – that was interesting.”

Bhargava, who was born in India and lived in various parts of the world throughout his childhood before his family settled in Shelton, originally thought he wanted to be an astronaut.

But in the process of blowing up toothpaste – and learning more and more about the science and mathematics behind rocketry – he found he was more interested in putting things into space, as opposed to actually going there himself.

That goal of putting things into space – as well as a newfound entrepreneurial spirit – has come to define the rising senior’s time at UConn, where he unexpectedly found a growing community of faculty engaged in space-related work and fellow students with a shared interest in space technology.

Originally a physics major, Bhargava found the math-intensive program lacked the sort of hands-on engineering that had marked his rocket building. He switched to UConn’s engineering physics program – offering him experience with both – but he admits that amidst the transition from high school to college, and the discovery of new communities with which he could relate at UConn, he lost his engineering passion in his first year at the University.

‘I had to change my work ethic completely’ 

“Coming to college, I had to change my work ethic completely, and there’s so many more people here that are similar to you in a lot of ways,” he explains. “My graduating class only had two or three other South Asians. So coming here, it was a really big South Asian community, and all types of different communities. I got involved heavily socially and, in freshman year, I fell out of love with engineering. I started finding interest more in entrepreneurship, stuff where you can directly see the change you’re making.”

In pursuit of that entrepreneurial interest, Bhargava became involved with UConn’s Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and was accepted into the inaugural cohort of the institute’s Stamford Startup Studio, an intensive entrepreneurial co-op based at UConn Stamford. It was through the Startup Studio that Bhargava rediscovered the joy he had always found in engineering.

“I came back from that experience, and I’ve just been grinding hard ever since,” he says.

When the opportunity arose, he jumped at the chance to join UConn’s first-ever team to compete in the NASA BIG Idea Challenge. Finalists in the challenge, Bhargava and his teammates are working this summer and into the fall semester to design a new modality for a lunar rover.

“The idea of building a rover or some robot is just so appealing to me,” he says, “for both the innovation part, but also because I can apply everything I learned in class into the robot. It’s all physics and engineering.”

But the rover design isn’t the only space-related project Bhargava has been working on this summer. He’s founded a new club at UConn called Space Tech, an offshoot of the Radio Electronics Club. Through the club, he secured funding from both the School of Engineering and the Connecticut Space Grant Consortium for two student teams to participate in RockOn, a program offered through the Colorado Space Grant Consortium where participants from around the country build a payload that is then launched into space on a rocket.

In advance of this year’s launch at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, the Space Tech teams built out the circuitry of their payloads onto glass plates, which on June 24 spent about five minutes in space aboard a Terrier Improved Orion sounding rocket before returning to Earth.

“For those five minutes, you can measure what space is like – what the temperature is, how high did it go, atmospheric conditions, or whatever you want to measure up there,” he explains. “It comes back down, then you can keep it, if you want to, and you can track it the entire way. So, it’s putting something in space, essentially, and that’s just exciting for anybody who wants to do space stuff at UConn.”

‘NASA isn’t just composed of engineers. It’s composed of everybody’ 

While, for the moment, the club is just composed of the RockOn teams, Bhargava plans to start recruiting new Space Tech members in the fall semester, with a focus on finding students who have an interest in space and space-related competitions, regardless of their field of study.

“Space Tech is going to be more focused on the various competitions that involve either rockets or satellites,” he says. “Next semester, we want to expand into a space where we can talk to people that work at NASA and learn about related competitions – this club can become a hub where people can come and learn about it, and then start their own teams. And we don’t want just engineering people to join, too, because NASA isn’t just composed of engineers. It’s composed of everybody – you need everybody.”

That interdisciplinary approach is also a hallmark of entrepreneurial opportunities at UConn, but it’s not all that Bhargava has brought from entrepreneurship to his space technology endeavors. He’s implemented “sprints” – a technique he learned from the Stamford Startup Studio – for the students working on the mechanics of the challenge rover design.

“One thing I learned was project management – how project management works, how to work in teams, and how to work efficiently,” he explains. “We did sprints all the time. In two weeks, you had to either have a deliverable or explain why this failed, and then start something new, which was awesome. That’s what I’m doing now with the NASA team. I’ve implemented sprints on the mechanics side. They do one-week sprints, and if it fails, we start on a new idea. If it doesn’t fail, then we just continue working on it.”

He’s also continuing to pursue his own, Earth-centered entrepreneurial interests.

‘I really want to accomplish my dreams’ 

Bhargava had worked on a startup concept for an AI-powered LED brake bar for cars, trucks, and other commercial vehicles with a few friends in high school. Now scattered on opposite sides of the country – some in Connecticut and others at the University of California, Berkeley – the friends revived their concept and launched their company, called Anzen, last year.

“The brake bar indicates your brake intensity to the driver behind you, and it has an AI camera, so it can exactly evaluate what happened,” he explains. “The brake bar consists of 10 lights, and they’ll work sequentially. If you brake lightly, only inner to lights will light up, and as you brake harder, all of them will light up. Right now, we’re tailoring it toward fleets. Instead of just having a black box, which is a current solution, they can have this device, which will increase safety.”

Their product uses its own independent sensor systems to measure brake intensity, which make it universally usable regardless of the year, make, or model of the vehicle. Bhargava says the AI integration may also have applications in the development and safety of autonomous vehicles.

“If there’s an instance where you break really hard, or if there’s an accident, the camera will record a few seconds before that,” he explains, “and the reason that it’s an AI camera, instead of a regular one, is so that it can model everything around what happened. That has future implications for autonomous vehicles, because the only thing electric vehicles really lack is data from behind the car. It’s all focused on the front and the sides.”

The Anzen team has already taken their concept through Traction and Accelerate UConn, two venture support programs offered through UConn’s Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. They’re currently building out product designs, with plans to conduct testing over the summer.

Bhargava hopes to one day fulfill his dream of working for NASA. And if it seems like he has a lot going on as an undergraduate, that’s because he does – but he said he hasn’t always been the “go-getter” type.

“I think it’s new,” he says. “I think it’s a learned trait, and most of that credit goes to the Stamford Startup Studio, honestly. Because over time, being there, the more I’d put myself out there and do things, the better things got for me. I didn’t realize that before I was just chugging along, doing my own thing.

“Now, I don’t want to just graduate and do a static job. I really want to accomplish my dreams.”