Student rocket flies to 15th at the Spaceport America Cup

group photo of UB-SEDS students with their rocket.

Fourteen students and their faculty advisor, mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Paul DesJardin, traveled to New Mexico this summer to participate in the Spaceport America Cup conference and competition. The event is the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering conference and competition, drawing over 1,500 students and faculty from more than 70 institutions around the world.

by Nicole Capozziello

Published October 25, 2019

On the 10th floor of Furnas Hall sit three 10-foot-high blue and white rockets. Though often the backdrop to students hanging out, studying, and talking about space, these aren’t just any rockets – they’ve each been built entirely by hand, travelled to New Mexico and back for the annual Spaceport America Cup, and – most impressively – travelled thousands of feet into the atmosphere.

“After spending the whole year working on our rocket, getting to go watch a hundred big rockets launch is just really incredible. I love the sound, the view, the whole experience.”
Jacob Henry, rocket team chief engineer and aerospace engineering major
Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

“After spending the whole year working on our rocket, getting to go watch a hundred big rockets launch is just really incredible,” says Jacob Henry, rocket team chief engineer and a senior aerospace engineering major who has been participating in the rocketry project for three years. “I love the sound, the view, the whole experience.”

Students in the club UB Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (UB SEDS) have participated in the annual competition for the past three years, designing, building, testing, and ultimately launching their rocket. The resulting rocket is the culmination of countless hours of hard work and collaboration between the club’s 30 active members.

This year, 14 students and the club’s faculty advisor, mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Paul DesJardin, travelled to the Spaceport America Cup conference and competition, which took place June 18-22, 2019 in Las Cruces, New Mexico and the surrounding desert. The event is the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering conference and competition, drawing over 1,500 students and faculty from more than 70 institutions around the world, and growing each year.

Student involvement and travel was supported by the Engineering Partnership Program and Engineering Alumni Association. Moog, Inc. and Safran Oxygen Systems are the team’s corporate sponsors.

At the opening academic conference, teams present their design –the product of the last year of research and development – to peers and prospective employers. Then, they put their designs to the test by launching them under real world conditions at the Spaceport America Vertical Launch Area. Students launch solid, liquid, and hybrid rockets to target altitudes of 10,000 and 30,000 feet.

The UB SEDS team participated in the 10K Solid Rocket Student Research and Developed Components Category. This year, their team achieved their best outcome yet, placing 15th out of 107 teams. “For it only being our third year participating in the competition, we’re really proud of that result,” says Henry, who’s hopeful that with what they learned from this year’s competition, they’re in a place to be in the top next year.

“The atmosphere at the competition is really supportive,” says Henry. “Judges and other students are happy to share advice and recommendations.”

The UB SEDS rocket reached an apogee, or maximum height, of 8,406 feet and had a velocity of 482 MPH. In addition to the altitude the rocket reaches, they were judged based on a technical report submitted in advance as well as design implementation and innovation.

“We’re always wanting to improve our design and challenge ourselves, so each year we try to do something a little different,” says Sophia Matla, an aerospace engineering major, and the UB SEDS propulsion chemistry lead engineer and director of public affairs. For the 2019 competition, the avionics team, led by computer science major Owen Torres, entirely designed and built its own flight computer. This was both a great personal and technical accomplishment: the computer outperformed ones that the team had bought in years past.

This year, the team also focused on optimizing the structure’s weight and reducing drag, learning from their work last year as well as others’ work at the conference.

Through innovative design and carefully selected building materials, they succeeded in reducing their structure’s weight by 47 percent over last year. They also created retractable rail guides, which fill the important role of stabilizing the rocket during the initial stage of launch. After this, however, rail guides serve no purpose and create unnecessary drag. The team’s innovative retractable rail guide implementation and fully student researched, designed, and built systems earned them a perfect score in the engineering design category, an accomplishment achieved by only a handful of teams.

“We pretty much start brainstorming for next year on the drive back from New Mexico,” says Henry. “And then we really get down to planning in September.” Students interested in participating in the rocketry competition have the option of helping out on four teams: structures, propulsion, dynamics and recovery, and avionics. The teams, which meet once or twice a week, are purposely designed to mimic industry, enabling students to specialize or learn new skills depending on their background and interests.

In addition to Henry and Matla, William Elliot, Nicholas McNally, Owen Torres, Zameer Ansari, Mike Kania, Gabriel Surina, Derek Bourabah, Olivia Gustafson, Luis Llanos, Dakota Rowehl, Jake Catalina and Nolan Mingst went to the competition.

For all students, the club is a space to come together over their passion for space exploration. For some participants, the hands-on experience they’ve gained has translated directly into the real world, helping them earn competitive internships everywhere from locally to NASA.

“I knew before I even came to UB that I wanted to be a part of SEDS,” says Henry. “And it’s been a lot of great exposure, not just to engineering but project management, leadership, soft skills.”

Looking to next year, the team is in the early phases of designing their next entry for the Spaceport America Cup. It’s a steep learning curve – as Matla says, “there is no step-by-step manual on how exactly to build a rocket so we learn as we go.” The team continues to drastically improve each year, innovating, strengthening bonds and sending a rocket entirely of their own making into the atmosphere.

In addition to the rocketry competition, UB SEDS’s other activities include astronomy, educational outreach, BattleBot, high power rocketry, and hybrid research and development.

Vist the SEDS website to learn more about the club's activities.