BYU rocketry club wins the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering competition

The BYU rocketry club spent a year designing the rocket they launched 9,938 feet into the air to win the Spaceport America Cup

The BYU Rocketry Club recently won the Spaceport America Cup, the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket engineering competition, by designing, building and launching a rocket 9,938 feet into the air.

The BYU Rocketry Club’s rocket taking off from the ground.
The BYU Rocketry Club’s rocket Solitude as it launched at the Spaceport America Cup, held June 19-24, 2023, near Las Cruces, New Mexico. | The BYU Rocketry Club

The club has been competing in the cup for several years, and although they didn’t win anything in last year’s competition, their rocket “did fine,” said BYU Rocketry Club vice president Riley Brown.

“We kind of had a thirst, like we could do a lot more,” he said.

With that desire to do better this year, the new team planned on entering the 10,000-foot commercial category, one of six categories in the competition, held June 19-24 near Las Cruces, New Mexico. In order to win their category, the team would have to launch their rocket as close to 10,000 feet as possible to earn the highest amount of points.

“A big portion of the design of your rocket is to be able to take the thrust and the force that the motor imparts into the rocket, and then the other hard part is how do you predict where your rocket is going to go and control it to some degree,” said Brown, who participated at both last year’s and this year’s Spaceport America Cup competition.

The BYU Rocketry Club stands around a line of rockets standing in a desert area.
Will Hart, a member of the BYU Rocketry Club, checks the GPS tracker on their rocket right before takeoff at the Spaceport America Cup to make sure the club will have communication to the unit inside the rocket. The cup was held June 19-24, 2023, near Las Cruces, New Mexico. | BYU Rocketry Club

The team made an airframe for the rocket entirely of custom carbon fiber. Inside the rocket, they implemented parachutes and electronics with black powder charges that pressurize the tube, enabling it to separate from the rocket and release the parachutes during the rocket’s descent. They also include a GPS system in the rocket, among other components.

The club named the rocket Solitude as a reference to the Utah-based ski resort and to the staggering altitudes that their rocket reaches in flight. They painted Solitude with the colors of the new Utah state flag.

The club spent a year designing and building the rocket. They also ran flight simulations to make sure it could fly.

“Your rocket has to be safe — these things can kill you if you’re not doing some level of safe practices,” said Brown.

After taking the proper safety precautions, the team was ready to compete. 

The BYU Rocketry Club’s rocket in flight.
Solitude, the BYU Rocketry Club’s rocket, in flight at the Spaceport America Cup competition, held June 19-24, 2023, near Las Cruces, New Mexico. | BYU Rocketry Club

“It’s a lot of fun and anticipation, where you’ve done everything you can, everything you’ve learned so far, and then you get to see how it performs,” Brown said. “Being able to see your work fulfilled in dramatic fashion is addicting.”

In addition to competing in their category, the team hoped to win and won the technical award — the Charles Holt Award for modeling and simulation — which they did win after they presented their rocket’s specifications and design process in a podium session to the judges.

Riley Brown and Aidan Rice with the BYU Rocketry Club speak with Spaceport officials.
Riley Brown, left, and Aidan Rice, middle, answering questions about the GPS unit inside the nose cone of their rocket during the flight safety review with Spaceport officials. The Spaceport America Cup was held June 19-24, 2023, near Las Cruces, New Mexico. | BYU Rocketry Club

During the competition, the team launched its rocket 9,938 feet into the air, coming within 62 feet of the 10,000 mark. Their rocket also didn’t sustain any damage, which won them additional points with the judges.

The team heard that they won their category during the awards ceremony, and then Brown  started to feel like they might win the whole competition.

“Winning our category was definitely surprising — I don’t think any of us expected that,” he said. “But then at the awards ceremony, we win our category … and I’m thinking to myself ‘I think we’re winning the whole thing.’ And we did.”

Brown said that he and the team were “blown away” with the win, which was the first time the BYU rocketry club won the Spaceport America Cup.

The BYU Rocketry Team stands around their rocket.
The BYU Rocketry Team directly after their rocket’s flight at the Spaceport America Cup, held June 19-24, 2023, near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The team members pictured from left to right: Scott Tuley, Anya Jeppson, Blake Jensen, Nathan Butler, Dallan Trentman, Aidan Rice, Riley Brown, Will Hart, Derrick Walker, Bradley Hornfischer, Joshua Taylor and Alexander Potter. | BYU Rocketry Club

The club members, most of whom are studying mechanical engineering, are eager to get real-world experience with engineering and aspire to work in the space industry for companies such as SpaceX, NASA or Northrup Grumman.

Brown expressed his gratitude for BYU and the rocketry club, calling his time in the club the “highlight of [his] educational career.”

“You can do anything — dream big, and you can do it,” Brown said.

A graphic from Spaceport shows the numbers of participants, teams and countries represented for the 2023 competition. | Spaceport America Cup graphic
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