Spaceport Cup 2019

Once a year a pilgrimage occurs to the mecca of amateur and commercial rocketry, nestled in the desert north of Las Cruces New Mexico. University-sponsored teams from around the world converge on Spaceport America to demonstrate their rocket design, analysis, building, and launching skills… one of the greatest defining moments in their collegiate careers. Teams can compete in certain competition categories, targeting altitudes of 10,000ft and 30,000ft. However, some teams elect to attempt flights beyond — to 50,000ft and up to 100,000ft using solid, hybrid, and liquid propulsion systems.

This facility is uniquely positioned just west of Whitesands Missile Range, so it is possible to obtain waivers to fly all the way to space on a regular basis, if required… as are the plans of emerging spaceflight companies Virgin Galactic and others.

It turns out the event was so popular this year that there were zero cars available for rent in the El Paso region. I was able to bum rides for the duration for the trip and made some profound new friendships. The morning of the first flights, we made it out to Spaceport America before sunrise — morning weather is best for launches. The largest building in the complex is currently VG’s new hangar, dubbed “The Gateway to Space”. This quick shot from our car doesn’t do it justice; it’s an incredibly-inspiring facility that represents the emerging commercial spaceflight industry.
Here’s a view of the Gateway from the Spaceport Operations Center. The state of New Mexico is investing heavily into emerging space industry. Personally, I think these lands will be of significant importance moving forward.
Here’s the Gateway to Space from the back (2.5 mile runway behind the camera). It was such a treat to meet Spaceport CEO Dan Hicks and his staff. He’s one of the nicest and most competent leaders I’ve encountered in the industry. He’s assembled an incredible team to move things forward, methodically and safely…and inspiring innumerable ppl along the way.
The Spaceport supports propulsion testing and vehicle flight test operations, spanning solids, hybrid, and liquid engine efforts. Designated areas and modern infrastructure will position them for long-term success. However, they must also be prepared and trained in emergency response. Spaceport America has its own specially-equipped fire and police department on duty 24/7. This new fire truck is one of their arsenal with all modern sensing and life-saving technologies. They work closely with local and federal authorities.
It’s no easy task to host several thousand students out in the desert for most of a week. There was a designated area for general spectators as well as a restricted area for rocketeers, judges, and volunteers. I’m very grateful to Spaceport America for granting me access to all areas.
A dry heat was sustained at over 100 degrees most of the day and dust storms tend to pick up as the day progresses. Numerous facilities and comforts were brought in for water, food, shade, and first-aid. Almost everyone was struggling against the heat, but the event did a very good job of providing rest areas and reminding attendees to keep hydrated. The food trucks and icies were especially popular. The people were the best part.
Over 120 university teams and numerous aerospace companies participated. It was a delight to walk the rows of tents and talk to each team. The international participation was strong (with more than 17 countries represented) and there was a feeling it was special for everyone to interact, share, and support. While this was a competition, the demeanor was one of cooperation and friendship.
Many well-known universities had a presence. Most had to drive for several days to get their equipment and rocket to the launch site. For many, this was the capstone project for their university major.
17 teams from Canada participated in the competition. It’s superb to see such comradery between students across borders. Perhaps the UN should be replaced by rocket clubs… 🙂
University of Washington came in full-force with their awesome liquid rocket project. They would later be crowned the winner of the 2019 Spaceport Cup!
Switzerland also had several teams with some great innovations and craftsmanship. When I launched rockets about a decade ago, active control systems were extremely rare. Nowadays, teams like these can reliably deploy airbrakes and other control surfaces to help hit their target altitude.
I was delighted to also meet a few teams from India. Not only did they muster the time and resources to put together some amazing projects, I think it was super special they made the long journey (which is not easy with rocket components).
This picture does not do it justice. Iowa State University’s rocket appeared to have some of the best aerodynamic designs I’ve seen in rocketry. In particular, their forward control canards were very close to optimized shapes with professional fabrication and positioned for (what appeared to me) proper CG-CP correlation and potential control-ability?! For the expected supersonic flight regime, the vehicle proportions seemed close to optimal.

It was such a treat to be able to meet with so many of you! Honestly, I think you’re all winners and given that the worst injuries that I heard of were heat exhaustion and a sprained ankle, I would say congratulations for being a part of a world-class rocket event! Hope to see you next year!

Ad Astra!