Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SPACEPORT AMERICA – As the first countdown came and went, the crowd stood silently, scanning the New Mexico horizon for any sign of the rocket they knew was sitting on a launchpad about a mile away, aimed for liftoff.
The second countdown came over the loudspeaker from mission control – “three, two, one … ” – and, again, only silence, which aggravated the young Cornell University student engineers who had spent more than a year designing their flagship rocket, Big Red 1 , for what they had hoped would be a spectacular display of rocketry at the Spaceport America Cup.
An official hustled out of mission control about 50 feet away and walked briskly to the Cornell student engineers to brief them on why their rocket had not launched.
“They had continuity, and they pressed the button, but there was no event,” explained the official, using rocket jargon familiar to the student engineers who were focused intently on his words. “And they no longer have continuity,” continued the official, “which suggests…”
At that instant, his voice was drowned out by the roar of Big Red 1, which appeared suddenly in the distance, a sleek blaze of titanium sheen glistening in the sun as it sliced through thousands of feet of New Mexico sky, high above the students and crowd now cheering its come-from-behind inaugural launch.
“It launched in that last second,” said an elated Nicole Barrera, team member for the Cornell Rocketry Team, in the moments after the rocket’s parachute puffed into view, bringing the rocket wafting safely back to the ground somewhere on the 18,000 acres of Spaceport America on Thursday morning.
“It was the biggest feeling of relief in the world,” Barrera said. “This has been years of work. Literally, since the beginning of my rocketry career to now, it has all been in that one rocket. And to finally see it fly like that, it is honestly the best feeling in the world.”
New Mexico’s Spaceport America Cup, the world’s largest intercollegiate rocketry engineering contest, was held last week at the commercial spaceport facility between Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences.
Teams were vying for Spaceport America Cup trophies, which will be awarded for 10,000- and 30,000-foot rocket categories, as well as the categories of COTS – “commercial off the shelf” engines – and custom hybrid engines. Another award category is the SRAD, or “student research and development” engines. The Spaceport America Cup will also be an overall winner for the competition.
“Judging is performed throughout the year on design and presentation, and then on accuracy and performance of the launch,” said Alice Carruth, the public relations coordinator for Spaceport America.
Carruth also said that the award-winners will be announced “in the coming days” because of some technical difficulties that delayed the collection of team performance data.
More than 5,500 “rocketeers” – student rocket builders – were registered to come to New Mexico from more than 20 countries across the globe. This year, more than 140 teams signed up.
Walking amid the hundreds of rocket-building teams camped out in tents Thursday, Carruth summed up the energy of the event.
“It is the NCAA equivalent of academia, but this is international,” she said.
The first Spaceport America Cup was organized in 2017 and continued as an annual event until 2020’s pandemic forced its cancellation. Last year’s event was a virtual competition and, this year, Spaceport America beefed up the event by bringing on the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association as a lead sponsor. Heavy rains aroun
d Spaceport America forced organizers to postpone Wednesday’s competition until Thursday because roads to the launch site were too muddy for vehicles to pass.
Students at this year’s event said they are eager to make up for the time lost during the height of the pandemic and weren’t fazed by the one-day rain delay.
“We drove the 32-hour journey to get here,” said Anish Seth, a member of the rocket-building team from Rutgers University in New Jersey.
“We have been preparing all year. We are excited and a bit nervous. We are looking forward to our competition. A lot of our alumni and mentors told us how much fun it was at the Spaceport America Cup, but we did not know exactly what we were getting into until we got here, and we are having a great time.”
Theo Youds, a 22-year-old student from the Leeds University Rocketry Association, was helping his team with the final preparations for their rocket. In a West Yorkshire accent, he said he was proud that he and his team could be part of the competition in the United States.
“We came all the way from England. We’re brand new, and we’re the only English team out here at the competition. Rocketry is not very big in the UK, and getting hold of the parts is difficult,” said Youds. “We are honored to be here, and we are honored that we are given this experience. There is no better place to learn student rocketry than right here, being surrounded by teams that have been around for decades, and being able to learn from them, and to compete with them is an honor.”
Out on the bleachers overlooking the distant launch site, Ali Chokre from the University of Washington in Vancouver stood with his teammates, awaiting their launch. He was quiet in the moments leading to their countdown.
“I have no words, honestly no words. I’m just hoping the launch goes well,” he said. “One year of hard work for our team’s rocket. Hopefully, it goes well. We worked really hard so that everything goes well.”
At the end of the countdown, their rocket shot up in an eruption of sound, pushed skyward by a neat fireball at its base, rising nearly perfectly straight, and it finally hit its goal of 30,000 feet, then pierced 2,000 feet further into the sky . The parachute ballooned out and the rocket began its gentle fall back down to land.
“It was a beautiful launch. We couldn’t hope for anything better,” Chokre said, taking a deep breath.
“You know you work really hard for a year with your team, and you are troubleshooting, you have mistakes and things that don’t work, and you keep working on it. And these 10 seconds, that is the culmination of all that hard work,” he said. “It’s a very intense emotion. This is beautiful. I feel really, really good. It’s maybe the best moment of my life.”