UT students can build their own rocket ship through newly-launched program

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Photo Credit: Jeb Milling | Daily Texan Staff

Shooting for the stars just got a little bit easier for UT students hoping to build a rocket that could reach space. 

This semester, UT is partnering with Firefly Academy, a nonprofit run by the Austin-based space vehicle company Firefly Aerospace, to create Firefly@UT. A donation of $1 million was given to UT anonymously for this program and will allow students from any discipline to help build a rocket that will reach the edge of space.

Philip Varghese, aerospace professor and faculty advisor, said the rocket will be 30 feet long, or the height of a three-story building. The rocket would need to launch 100 kilometers above sea level to reach the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and the edge of outer space. 

The Cockrell School of Engineering created the Texas Rocket Engineering Lab, a 1,000-square-foot lab in the Engineering Education and Research Center to serve as the headquarters for Firefly@UT. Aerospace engineering faculty members and Firefly Aerospace engineers will mentor students building the rocket, giving them hands-on experience usually learned through internships. 

“We’re trying to bring the company onto campus so students have the opportunity in the evenings or on the weekends to interact with practicing engineers and get the benefits from something like the real world,” Varghese said. “This is an interesting blend of theory and practical hands-on experience.”

There is currently a group of aerospace students working on the rocket, and the process to include more students is still being determined, said Noel Clemens, the aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics department chair.

The rocket will be built at a 2,000-square-foot assembly lab at UT’s J.J. Pickle Research Campus and will be entered in the 2021 Base 11 Space Challenge, a competition where student teams launch a rocket to an altitude of 100 kilometers by Dec. 30, 2021. The first student team to reach this goal will receive $1 million.

Along with going to the moon and Mars, there are growing commercial opportunities in space, said Clemens. He said minerals could be mined on asteroids, and once satellites are cheaper to launch, more satellites will be established by companies for a variety of reasons.

“Rocket engineering is growing in importance,” Clemens said. “This is the right time for students to be educated about this, because there are going to be a lot of jobs (in this field) in the future.”

Before Firefly@UT, the student-run Longhorn Rocketry Association functioned on a budget of $10,000 per year to design, build and test rockets, Clemens said, but the size of the donation that created Firefly@UT is transformative.

“Now we’re talking a million dollars, so that will completely change the nature of what is done,” Clemens said. “This would be challenging, maybe even impossible to do without the money.”

Aerospace engineering freshman Sara Franze said she is considering entering the program and wants to apply the skills she would learn building rockets to satellite maintenance. 

“It’s a great opportunity for us to learn what we’re getting into … before we’re getting internships or jobs,” Franze said. “There’s a lot to learn in space research, and this is a great opportunity for us to help.”