Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SPACEPORT AMERICA – Hundreds of student rocketeers gathered under a searing sun to launch their creations in the third annual Spaceport America Cup.
“It was all leading up to this moment, so it was a little nerve-wracking,” said Victoria Ramirez, 23, with the Lobo Launch team from the University of New Mexico.
The UNM team was the first to launch during the three-day competition, which started Wednesday and ends with an awards ceremony Saturday. Its rocket reached an altitude of 10,614 feet, Ramirez said.
“This is our first time. We really just wanted to do our best,” she said.
The event is the largest intercollegiate competition and rocket engineering conference, and this year it attracted more than 120 teams from across the country and the globe. They’re competing in various categories and launching solid, liquid and hybrid rockets to target altitudes of 10,000 feet and 30,000 feet.
“It was all tests until now. Now, it’s the real thing,” said Pedro Freitas, 20, who is with the ITA Rocket Design team from Brazil. Though this is Freitas’ first time at the Spaceport America Cup, his school has competed in the past.
“We built our own engine,” he said of his team’s rocket this year.
“There are universities from around the world that come here and compete at this engineering rocket competition because they don’t have places to launch rockets in their nations,” Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks said.
The colleges represented at the “design-build-fly” competition ranged from Ivy League schools to community colleges.
“We’re giving the future space workforce, the future brain trust of our space industry, an opportunity to have a practical experience while they’re going to the university, while they’re learning their theoretical concepts,” Hicks said.
For students, watching their rockets reach new heights can be exhilarating and harrowing at the same time.
“Working nine months for just two minutes is insane but it’s really rewarding,” said Paul Prantl, 25, with Project Heidi Team from Switzerland after the successful launch of its rocket.
The team from Vancouver, Wash., watched as its engine failed.
“The judges saw that it basically exploded half-way up,” said Michael Herline, of Clark College.
Even so, the experience was valuable.
“There’s a lot of good learning experiences obviously that comes from it and how much the team has worked together to overcome hurdles,” Herline said.
“I guess it’s kind of a big relief of a lot of stress. We’ve been working really hard on it for a really long time. It’s a little bit disappointing just the way it turned out,” said the youngest team member, 17 year-old Chanslor Ruth, a high school junior.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas team was waiting to launch its rocket, known as the Love Ship. It’s the first time the group has competed in the Spaceport America Cup.
“I’m the president of the chapter. I’m also the leader of the project. I’m also the only girl on the team,” said Mariana Rodriguez, an electrical engineering student at the university. An immigrant from Zacatecas who grew up in Nevada, Rodriguez said it’s “empowering” for girls interested in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – to see women in leadership roles.
“I make it a point to talk to them and to encourage them and always try to set a good example. I think it has more an impression than we realize when younger girls see us here,” Rodriguez said.
Government and private space industry leaders attending the competition are also watching with an eye on the future.
“These students will become leaders in the space industry,” Hicks said. And he’s hopeful their experience at Spaceport America will bring them back later.
“Twenty or 30 years from now they’ll remember, ‘You know what. There’s this beautiful facility in southern New Mexico that’s the right place for my company to be,’ ” Hicks said.