TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES −After climbing through the driver’s side window of his minivan, with his shoes and socks soaked in mud, Noah Charleson-Sterritt peered across the surrounding ranchlands and assessed his options.
His mobile phone had no signal, meaning he could not call or text his teammates who were waiting for him at Spaceport America, several miles away.
His team, consisting of about a dozen University of British Columbia students, was preparing to launch a rocket Thursday afternoon aiming for an apogee of 30,000 feet as part of its entry in the world’s largest intercollegiate rocketry competition, the Spaceport America Cup.
The team had made the trip from Vancouver to Las Cruces, New Mexico in two automobiles. One those vehicles was now mired deeply in a deep puddle from the previous day’s rains on an unpaved county road. Some distance down the road, calves found relief from the desert heat by lying down in the mud.
“I didn’t think it was that deep,” he said. “I was mostly focused on getting back in time because we’re waiting for everybody for launch.”
Fortunately for Noah, a Federal Express driver happened to drive up the road, and offered him a satellite phone. He was told a tow truck might take two hours to arrive; so instead, trusting the security of his minivan to the cows, he accepted a ride back to the spaceport where, he hoped, staff might be able to pull him out of the mud.
The previous day, after all, had seen a few vehicles get stuck after unexpected rains fell on the Jornada del Muerto desert basin of Sierra County, where New Mexico’s purpose-built commercial spaceport is located on a remote stretch of state land close to White Sands Missile Range.
Wednesday was to have been the first of three days of launches for nearly 100 colleges and universities that had made the trip to New Mexico out of 149 reportedly registered. However, rain and muddy conditions led to launches being canceled that day.
Tori Hoffman, a New Mexico State University student also working as a business operations intern at Virgin Galactic, said she and her teammates spent Wednesday waiting out the weather in a parking lot near the spaceport’s central campus.
The team’s leader, Scott Komar, was buoyant about returning to the spaceport for one last student competition, which he called his “swan song.” Komar graduated last year and has begun his aerospace career with SpaceX.
NMSU’s team, he said, rapidly expanded this year, from 10 to 40 active participants, with the hope that the event would culminate in an actual launch. The team achieved a successful test launch in April.
The rocketry competition draws thousands of students, faculty members and aerospace professionals first to the Las Cruces Convention Center, where teams present exhibitions about the rockets they build and the research payloads they plan to fly; and then approximately 50 miles north to the spaceport’s vertical launch area.
The event has been organized yearly since 2006 by the nonprofit Experimental Sounding Rocket Association. It was held in Green River, Utah until it moved to the spaceport in 2017, which is when the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition was rebranded as the Spaceport America Cup.
First in-person event in two years
This week was the event’s return to in-person competition after the 2020 event was canceled and the 2021 Cup was virtually held due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the launch area Thursday, ESRA and spaceport staff permitted teams to arrive as early as 4 am for preliminary work integrating their rocket systems and did what they could to move the process of final safety checks, preparation and launches as efficiently as possible.
Adding to the time pressure, a new federal rule this year required teams to stop working and emerge from their tents for each launch.
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Spaceport America spokesperson Alice Carruth explained that under the Federal Aviation Administration waiver that permits the students to launch rockets at the facility, any and all spectators were considered “active participants” required to cease activities, stand outside of tents or vehicles and watch each rocket entire time it was in the air and point in its direction for the trajectory up and down.
Complying with the rule proved difficult because of issues with the public announcement system out at the encampment, where some speakers were not working and power generators drowned out messages. Spaceport teams in red vests would shout warnings as countdowns began and teams would lay down their tools.
The encampment consisted of tents raised in neat rows, many sporting national flags or university banners. MountainView Regional Medical Center, a sponsor of the competition, had a medical tent and shaded area set up for anyone overwhelmed by the heat or by health events. Aerospace companies such as Raytheon, Blue Origin and others set up exhibition tables hoping to introduce their companies to emerging young talent. The atmosphere was busy yet cheerful, with many teams observed lending each other soldering irons and other necessities.
“We help each other out,” David Avalos said while gazing into the sky looking for a red parachute amid the clouds, “but at the same time, down deep, I want to do better — especially with the Chile Cup.”
The Chile Cup is a parallel competition exclusively for university teams from New Mexico and Texas.
Avalos was part of a team from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. Their faculty advisor, mechanical engineering professor Mike Hargather, proudly displayed the rocket motor the students had built themselves. A team of seven worked swiftly, organizing and assembling the components.
From a distance
The first rocket launched around 8 am Thursday, as several hundred people applauded and cheered. The second one demonstrated why the FAA preferred that everyone on the grounds paid close attention. The rocket broke up after launch, sending a mild sonic wave across the tents. Carruth referred to it as a CATO: “Catastrophe after take-off.”
“That’s why we do these at a distance,” the overhead announcer remarked over a distant speaker.
Like Charleson-Steritt, who beat it through mud and hardship to see his team’s rocket fly, many of the international teams had harrowing tales of challenges crossing continents and oceans with rocket components, shipments getting delayed, and essential pieces arriving just in the nick of time.
Anish Silian, heading a team of 10 students from the Manipal Institute of Technology (“the MIT of India,” one student called out while working on the rocket) said that government restrictions on rocket launches back home required them to test different missile components separately .
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A team of students from Malaysia competing here for the first time sought to capture that spirit in the name of their rocket: HEBAT, standing for “Hard work,” Experience, Believe, Achieve and Together. Professor Norilmi Amilia Ismail, mentoring a team of 11 students from Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, said their rocket’s payload included atmospheric measuring devices, medals intended for the team’s sponsors and a tiny astronaut figure.
Launches are scheduled to continue at the spaceport through noon Saturday, followed by five hours of site cleanup. The competitors then return to the Las Cruces Convention Center for a nighttime awards ceremony with the grand prize being the distinctive Spaceport America Cup trophy, designed to resemble the arc sculpture that greets visitors at the spaceport’s front gate.