The Race to Launch the First Student-Built Rocket into Space Is On

Rocketry teams compete for the milestone of becoming the first student team to reach space.

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Feb 23 2018, 3:00pm

Image: Space Enterprise at Berkeley

Once upon a time, if you were a college student who wanted to build spacefaring rockets, you’d study hard and hope to land a job in aerospace once you graduated. But there’s a new generation of rocketry enthusiasts on the rise, and they are not content to wait on their commencement ceremonies to put their own vehicles into space.

This prompted Space Enterprise at Berkeley, a group founded by UC Berkeley undergraduates, to challenge their peers to participate in Project Karman—a race to be the first college team to fund, build, and blast a rocket beyond the Karman Line. At 100 kilometers (62 miles) above Earth’s surface, the line is widely recognized as the boundary to outer space. It’s over twice as high than current record altitude achieved by a collegiate team: 44 kilometers (27 miles), set by the University of Southern California in March 2017.

To that point, the Berkeley team is a relative newcomer to a collegiate space race that has been gaining momentum around the world for well over a decade. Among the leaders of this movement are UC San Diego, Boston University, the Delft University of Technology, Princeton University, and University of Southern California's Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (USCRPL).

USCRPL, founded in 2005, has maintained its lead in this race with an incremental and engineering-intensive approach, culminating in the team's record-breaking launch of its Fathom II vehicle last year.

Jiayong Li, a Berkeley undergrad and member of Space Enterprise at Berkeley, said that the new group was inspired by the innovations in the commercial space sector, and wanted to spark competitive spaceflight with students around the globe.

“What if a student team took ideas that other people were using, and developed a rocket that was bare bones, cheaper, and more efficient, and got us to space?” Li explained in a phone interview with Motherboard.

The team—led by chief business development officer Paul Shin, chief technical officer Eric Pillai, and chief operations officer Victor Garza III—built on this idea by announcing a “global space race” during the United Nations World Space Week in October 2017. “We challenged any other university to reach space before us, and we had really good feedback from that all across the world,” Li said. He noted that Georgia Tech's Yellow Jacket Space Program is directly participating in Project Karman.

“I think that’s the most inspiring thing about our project: the interest we’ve garnered from other universities and everyone we’ve reached out to about this project,” Li said. “Our end goal with this project and mission is to have a global initiative, to see students really interested in space again, and looking to have their own rocket teams."

For its own design, the Space Enterprise team trawled through rocket components looking for reliable but cost-effective combinations. With the help of donations from manufacturers and a crowdfunding campaign that raised $30,000, the group bootstrapped development on Eureka-1, a 10-meter (32-foot) tall liquid propellant rocket designed to reach 110 kilometers of altitude, and deliver an 11-pound payload there. They plan to unveil the finished vehicle at the International Space Development Conference, to be held in Los Angeles in May.

“Eureka-1 is a totally student-designed proprietary rocket,” Li said. “We’re not doing anything completely groundbreaking, but I think what we’re doing that is separate from other universities, is that we’re really focused on our space shot, on getting to space, whereas a lot of other universities have rocketry teams that are more focused on other types of research.”

Read More: Inside the Most Exclusive High-Powered Rocketry Event in America

The team is shooting to launch Eureka-1 on its maiden flight in July, and has arranged for it to lift off north of Edwards Air Force Base in California, at a site that belongs to a nonprofit called Friends of Amateur Rocketry. If successful, the plan is to begin launching commercial and collegiate payloads into space at under $200,000 a pop.

“They’re not really glamorous, the rockets we’re sending to space—they’re not the most ground-breaking rockets,” Li told me. “But they’re really efficient and cheap to make and we think that this could be a great way to lower the boundaries of sending student research projects to space. Hopefully, if we can accomplish our goal this year of launching Eureka-1, we can proceed with those future endeavors.”

Haley Karow, who is lead operations officer at USCRPL, said that her team is not directly participating in Project Karman, but plans to launch its first space shot in April. The goal, she told me over the phone, is to reach 423,000 feet, or around 80 miles, in order to claim the milestone USC has been working towards since 2005.

Likewise, Saad Mirza, the project manager of Princeton SpaceShot, told me in an email that his team is not participating in Project Karman, but is on track to launch its lightweight sounding rocket to space in May, from Spaceport America, with the ultimate goal of designing, building, and launching rockets for $10,000.

Update: This article has been updated with comments from USCRPL and Princeton University.

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