UTSA students selected for NASA competition


Josh Peck

The interior of the newly constructed Science and Engineering Building. The students selected for the competition will be able to test their science and engineering skills against other students around the country.

Bella Nieto, Assistant News Editor

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to build a rocket — just a group of eight UTSA students who were recently selected to be a part of the NASA Student Launch challenge, which gives aspiring rocketeers hands-on experience with the NASA development and design process.

“The researching and teamwork skills is something, I feel, we can all take and apply to our STEM based majors,” Evelyn Fernandez, freshman engineering major and participant in the NASA Student Launch Challenge, said. “All of the skills we are picking up shows the purpose of the challenge and its difficulty, especially when you have to learn as you go.”

The admittance process is lengthy: First, groups must submit a proposal that details their budget, design and timeline. Assistant professor of mechanical engineering and the faculty mentor for the students participating in the challenge, Christopher Combs actually completed the same challenge as an undergraduate and connected with the interested students.  

After being selected, the students begin the intensive process of building, but before the rocket launch, NASA requires several readiness trainings. The eight-month challenge requires that teams design, build and fly a high-powered amateur rocket to 3,500-5,000 feet. A new addition to NASA’s challenge is the incorporation of a rover with a camera into the rocket’s design. The rover, which deploys as the rocket drops, is required to be upright, level and adjust itself all while simultaneously taking a 360 degree panoramic photo. The deadline to complete the workload is April 2021. 

“It’s gotten a lot more advanced, and they are asking more of the teams than they used to when I participated,” Combs said. “The work they are doing isn’t particularly easy, so it is going to be interesting to see how the solutions the students come up with and how they attack that problem because there are a lot of different variables involved.” 

From the colleges of both Sciences and Engineering, students Dillon Emmele, Carolyn Alvarado, Kate Benoit, Fernandez, Madeline Hickman, Jasmyn Johnson, Adolfo Santa Fe Duenas and Daniel Wood will complete the challenge. Several of these students had no prior experience rocket designing and so they researched terminology and strategies in line with their respective tasks. 

“I have definitely gotten closer to the other students,” Fernandez said. “ We have been working diligently; just this week we have spent at least twenty hours, and it has been a good experience building relationships.”

Once the rocket is complete, the available team members travel to Huntsville, Alabama, where the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center is located. All the schools, both high schools and universities, fly their rockets over the course of three days. The launches are broadcast on NASA TV, and students receive a tour of the facility and a celebration banquet. 

“There will be a lot of good opportunities for networking, interactions and meeting other students,” Combs noted. “There is also the honor of showing off what their accomplishments are and building the UTSA brand. I hope we can get a huge UTSA Rowdy sticker on the rocket to see the pride come out!”