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Spaceport America Cup AIAA sutdents
July 17, 2023

UW AIAA students compete at Spaceport America Cup in New Mexico

Written By: Caitlin Scott


Students from the UW-Madison chapter of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) recently competed at the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (also known as Spaceport America Cup) in New Mexico. They placed 34th overall out of 158 teams participating!

This is the world’s largest intercollegiate rocket competition and evaluates each team based on the performance of the rocket as well as a scientific payload being carried by the rocket. This year was UW-Madison’s first entry into the competition and the team successfully launched and recovered a rocket carrying a quantum magnetometer as a payload. Despite high-wind conditions, the team received bonus points for launching early, with their rocket reaching an apogee altitude of 8233 ft. The rocket was recovered in the desert without damage, along with an intact and still-functioning scientific payload.

The event is a culmination of 9-months-plus worth of hard work by the students where additional students from AIAA also contributed to the rocket design, construction, testing, and providing regular reporting to the competition.


AIAA President and Competition Structures co-lead Julia Thormann shared, “In October 2022 we got accepted into the competition after a month of trial and error with just designing our rocket, so we were all so elated when we found out we got in. After that it was straight to work. We had a total of 3 project update reports and a final technical report that we had to submit as well as a safety review video conference.”

Thormann and Conway
Julia Thormann and Sam Conway

Competition Structures co-lead Sam Conway added, “Being outside for hours each day in over 100-degree temperatures with a UV index high enough to fry you in minutes really made you appreciate the AC back at the Airbnb. Every day we had to be prepared for not only prepping, launching, and recovering our rocket, but we also had to make sure we had what we needed to take care of ourselves in the grueling desert. Pants, long sleeves, hiking shoes, sunglasses, food, and LOTS of water were all just as important as any rocket component.”

Murphy’s Law

“Preparation for the competition was certainly a lesson in maintaining deadlines,” shared Competition Team Lead Kyle Adler. “We were all busy with classes and jobs, so it was hard to find time to work on the project, and this being our first time we didn’t know what to expect in terms of work required. Each of the sub-teams faced their own challenges as we prepared for test and final launch, but it was the trial and error that taught us the most.”

Kyle Adler
Kyle Adler

“Despite having to turn around to avoid a tornado in Kansas the night prior and the long drive down, we were all eager to experience the payoff of 9 months of work. When the time finally came for the launch days, we quickly learned all of the ways Murphy’s Law applies to rocketry. After preparing the rocket all morning, our first launch was scrubbed due to wind. Disappointed but determined to launch the second day, we woke up well before sunrise to give us the best chance. Another 5 hours of preparation and several broken switches later, we finally found ourselves loading the rocket onto the pad. The most memorable moment soon came, as our team was called over, and we confirmed GO for launch. Seconds later, we lost GPS tracking, and watched our rocket soar into the clouds. The successful recovery of our rocket was a perfect example of the importance of backup measures and planning for the worst, something none of us will soon forget.”

The efforts that went into this competition and AIAA in general are truly cross-departmental in the College of Engineering. Rocketeers present for the event were: Kyle Adler, Julia Thormann, Sam Conway, Camden Schultz, Isaac Becker, Violet Suhrer, Avery Kendall, Eugene O’ Brien, and Scott Russell. Frank Nobile (mentor and technical advisor for the rocket) and Jennifer Choy (ECE faculty advisor) were also in attendance. The leadership team for the competition was Kyle Adler – Team Lead, Julia Thormann and Sam Conway – Structures Leads, Avery Kendall – Payload Lead, and Scott Russell – Avionics Lead.

students at spaceport america cup 2023
From left to right: UW Engineering students Kyle Adler, Cam Schultz, Avery Kendall, Violet Suhrer, Frank Nobile (mentor), Julia Thormann, Isaac Becker, Eugene O’Brien, Sam Conway, and Scott Russell at Spaceport America Cup 2023.

The team expresses sincere thanks to the UW-Madison departments of Nuclear Engineering & Engineering Physics, Electrical & Computer Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering, as well as ATA Engineering and AVCO for their support. This competition would not have been possible without it.

View a livestream of the rocket launch, timestamp 2:58:17.

See fun documentation of the entire experience via UW AIAA on TikTok.

Featured image caption: The night after the rocket launch, the team went into the desert to see the stars in one of the least light polluted areas in the US.