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October 5, 2018

Lift off, Wisconsin! Student team shoots for the stars in rocket contest

Written By: Sam Million-Weaver

Wisconsin’s state motto may be “Forward,” but a team of engineering students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison is looking upward at the stars.

The students are setting their sights sky-high, aiming to design, build and launch a liquid-propelled rocket capable of breaching the boundary of outer space.

If they are the first team to achieve this lofty goal by Dec. 30, 2021, the students stand to win a $1 million prize in a first-of-its-kind contest called The Base 11 Space Challenge, sponsored by the companies Base 11, Dassault Systems and Spaceport America.

Designed to encourage more students, especially those from minority backgrounds, to join the next-generation aerospace workforce, the challenge pits university teams from around the world against each other in a modern-day space-race.

students on UW-Madison team in the Base 11 Space Challenge
The leadership for the UW-Madison team in the Base 11 Space Challenge. From left: William Gorecki, Travis Sheperd, Brandon Wilson, Mary Claire Mancl, Max Goldberg, Vincent Bensch.

More important than the prize money, though, the students are helping humanity blaze beyond the final frontier.

“I’m passionate about a future where we are exploring the cosmos,” says Brandon Wilson, a senior majoring in engineering mechanics and astronautics who is the team’s co-founder and technical lead. “In the long term, I hope to work toward exploring other stars.”

That passion motivates all 21 of the students on the UW-Madison team, who will also gain one-of-a-kind real-world experience constructing a rocket.

“It’s so important to get hands-on experience building hardware,” says team co-founder and entrepreneur Max Goldberg, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering. “There’s no replacement for the interpersonal team dynamics of working in a high-stakes situation”

And the stakes are high, literally. The students are shooting to achieve an altitude of 100 kilometers—the so-called Kármán line that marks the threshold of where Earth’s atmosphere ends and outer space begins.

In order to achieve such great heights, the students plan to build a liquid-propelled rocket more than 20 feet in length and weighing more than 1,000 pounds.

UW-Madison has performed well in other aerospace contests, with the Badger chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics posting solid top-10 finishes in solid-fuel rocket competitions.

But the Base 11 Space Challenge will push the students like never before.

“We’ve never done liquid rocket engines on campus, so we have to start from the ground up,” says Wilson.

But starting from square one isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. In fact, freedom to innovate gives the student team a metaphorical leg up over private industry.

“We’re starting fresh, we have no constraints, we can explore new technology without the development costs that companies might have,” says Wilson.

Preliminary designs are due by March 2019, and the students aim to build a small-scale prototype within the same timeline. During the competition’s first year, the students are beginning to fund-raise, seek out corporate sponsorships, and establish a local space-race infrastructure, including rocket testing grounds.

They’re aiming to test-fire their first prototypes by spring 2019.

Win or lose, the competition will serve as a launchpad for the students’ careers in the aerospace industry. Perhaps more importantly, though, the contest represents a chance for the students to embody the Wisconsin idea all the way beyond the classroom and into the stars.

“We have a long history in Wisconsin of people being interested in space, reaching for the moon, and taking moon shots,” says Goldberg. “We’re excited about that sense of possibility that you can do anything in space.”

The team is currently seeking additional members as well as corporate partners. Interested students can email Companies who would like to learn more about how to provide sponsorship for the team can email