Student rocketeers soar to new heights in Spaceport America Cup

rocket launch.

UB's rocket took third place in the Space Dynamics Laboratory Payload Challenge at the Spaceport America Cup in New Mexico.

By Sarah D'Iorio

Published September 5, 2018

“It was exciting to watch them work as a well-oiled team — everyone having a specific role in the assembly and launch process.”
Paul DesJardin, Professor
Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

A group of 11 UB engineering and applied sciences students traveled nearly 2,000 miles across the country with a rocket they designed and built to participate in the world's largest intercollegiate rocket engineering conference and competition.

The UB student chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) competed for the second time ever in the Spaceport America Cup, held annually in Southern New Mexico — and returned with a third place trophy for their rocket’s performance in the competition’s Space Dynamics Laboratory Payload Challenge.

According to Gabe Surina, rocket team lead and an undergraduate student in aerospace and mechanical engineering, UB’s rocket performed very well with a maximum altitude of about 8,400 feet and a maximum speed of just under 500 miles per hour.

“Our team really did an amazing job, especially with how many hurtles we had to overcome,” said Surina.

One such hurtle occurred when the separated rocket spun under its parachute and weakened the Kevlar rope by rubbing against the fiberglass body tube.

“The Kevlar snapped during the main parachute deployment resulting in the bottom half to free fall from 1,250 feet — a surprise to the team and to the judges!” he said.

The Space Dynamics Laboratory Payload Challenge is judged based on the rocket’s design, relevancy of the team’s objective, professionalism, survivability, and how well the design accomplishes the established objective.

For their third place finish in the payload challenge, the UB team received a trophy and $250. Additionally, the team placed 26 out of 47 teams in the 10K COTS category (flights to 10,000 feet using a commercial off-the-shelf rocket motor) and placed 32 out of 101 teams overall.

The mission of SEDS is to raise interest and awareness of space exploration and development. According to Surina, more than 50 students were involved in some capacity with building the competition rocket throughout the school year, with about 15 students dedicating themselves on a regular basis. Participants come from a variety of majors, including aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physics, and computer science.

Among the UB students who attended the competition were Surina, Matthew Buczkowski, William Elliott, Jacob Henry, Thomas Hill, Owen Langrehr, Sophia Matla, Nicholas McNally, Ari Rubinsztejn, Owen Torres, and Peter Wilkins.

In addition to student support, Surina also acknowledged the team's sponsor, Zodiac Aerospace: “We are grateful to Zodiac Aerospace, who supports everything from the threads in our parachute to the igniters we use to light the motor. Their support reinforces the fact that companies want students with this type of experience and helps us to justify the amount of work we put into the rocket project."

SEDS Faculty Advisor Paul DesJardin, professor in the mechanical and aerospace engineering, also attended the competition, which was held June 19-23 between the cities of Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences, N.M.

"The team did an outstanding job,” said DesJardin. “It was exciting to watch them work as a well-oiled team — everyone having a specific role in the assembly and launch process. I feel privileged to have been part of their adventure in the competition."

DesJardin said that the SEDS rocket design competition allows students to not only acquire technical skills, but to learn how to work as a team while having fun. He added that the experience provides “invaluable lessons in leadership and working in a diverse group that can't be easily realized in a traditional classroom setting.”

The SEDS team is already planning for next year’s competition. They will be competing in the 10K Solid SRAD (Student Researched and Developed) category in 2019.

“In other words, we are making our own solid rocket propellant. We are also laying the ground work for a hybrid propulsion system for future competitions,” Surina said.

Watch the team’s post-flight live stream interview with Kerbal Space Academy:

The team also received support from the SEAS Engineering Partnership Program, a program that strengthens the school’s relationships with local and national companies, both for their benefit and the benefit of our students and their employment futures.