Launching the Future of Rocketry
Vincent Smith posted on June 24, 2016 |
Engineering students bring innovation to rocket design with NASA’s Student Launch Program competitio...
One of the rockets launched at the NASA Student Launch Program rocketry competition. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

One of the rockets launched at the NASA Student Launch Program rocketry competition. (Image courtesy of NASA.)

NASA’s Student Launch program is an innovative meeting of research and education. The program challenges student teams from high schools and universities across the United States to construct and launch a payload-carrying rocket up to an altitude of one mile. 

The constructed rockets must also be designed with a parachute, and coordinated so that components can be retrieved afterwards for evaluation.

Organizers of the event tout it as an excellent way to get students to apply science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) knowledge in a practical, hands-on way.

The event progresses over the course of nearly a year from concept to completion. The requirements help students to develop a number of oft-overlooked professional skills, including the ability to plan out and follow through with a project over an extended period, and taking detailed notes with each new prototype.

Students also get the chance to work with NASA's own propulsion engineers, who meet with them via teleconference during the rocket building process. Teams are taken through the same production process that professionals go through, encouraging and advising the teams on overcoming the kind of challenges they'll face as they pursue a career in engineering.


The students aren't the only ones benefitting, however. The SLP acts as a way for NASA to conduct research in an economically viable way. Observing the performance of the teams' different designs allows NASA to make valuable observations about how innovative features might be successfully integrated into NASA's future space launch systems.

The Cornell University team and their rocket, Space Jam. (Image courtesy of Cornell University.)

The Cornell University team and their rocket, Space Jam. (Image courtesy of Cornell University.)

One of the winners at the SLP competition’s finals in April was the team from Cornell University,  taking home the award for Best Vehicle Design. 

According to their website  their champion rocket, Space Jam “features full fiberglass airframe and fins. It utilizes a Cesaroni K740 motor and achieves a liftoff thrust of 191.1 lbs and a rail exit velocity of 70.1 ft/s.”

Other notable winners were the University of Florida, which took home the prize for highest altitude reached, and Florida's Citrus College, which won the Engagement Award for their outstanding work in educating others on rocketry and space-related topics.

For teams looking to get involved for next year's competition, there are two main channels. For middle and high school teams, NASA will hold a series of qualifying competitions nationwide over the course of the year to narrow down the participants for the launch event proper.

College and university level teams can get involved by constructing and submitting a design proposal to NASA for evaluation. Details on contact information, proposal requirements, guidelines and other information about how to enter can be found on NASA's Student Launch website.

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