GW Rocket Team Successfully Launches Dual-Stage Rocket at 2023 Spaceport America Cup

August 10, 2023

The 2023 GW Rocket Team smiling in front of a Spaceport America banner

After a 2,205-mile trek, the GW Rocket team, composed of nine current GW Engineering students and two recent graduates, finally arrived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the 2023 Spaceport America Cup. The Spaceport America Cup is the world's largest intercollegiate rocket engineering conference and competition. It brought together 158 teams and 5,913 rocketeers who put their rockets to the test between June 19 and 24, 2023.

Spaceport America is the first purpose-built commercial spaceport in the world where companies in the commercial space industry regularly come to use the complex for testing and launching. They host this competition every year so student rocketeers can meet with competition sponsors and soar their rockets to unprecedented heights.

Team photo with faculty advisor, Dr. Murray Snyder

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Murray Snyder attended as GW Rocket's faculty advisor, as he has done so for many years. Snyder said, "The first competition I attended in 2014 had approximately 40 teams with 300 students. Our rocket that year was 3 inches in diameter and 5 feet tall, versus our 6-inch diameter, 18-foot dual-stage rocket this year. Both the competition and GW Rocket have come a long way since then."

GW Rocket competed in the 10k aboveground level (AGL) student research development (SRAD) category. The 10,00 feet AGL apogee altitude is nominal since teams get maximum points if the rocket's actual altitude is closest to their predicted altitude, which was 11,300 AGL for GW Rocket. The students manufactured the propellant, which was a mix of chemicals and 'shake and bake.'

This year, the team also decided to attempt a dual-stage rocket, which few teams try to due to its complexity. Team captain Eliese Ottinger said the GW Rocket Team first designed a dual-stage rocket in 2019, but over the 2019-2020 academic year, felt the need to decrease the complexity of the design after a subscale test failure and thus dropped to single-stage.

Out of the six dual-stage rockets that launched at the 2023 competition, GW Rocket was the only team who had the 2nd stage ignite as expected. 

"Needless to say, a dual-stage rocket by GW was a long way in the making. Multistage rockets are inherently more complex than single stages. The second stage of the rocket is lighter than an entire single-stage rocket and already has some upward momentum as the motor ignites, so smaller motors can be used to reach the same apogee. Additionally, if the team decides to move up to the 30k AGL category, this affords them more flexibility in propulsion systems and less worry about cutting weight,” Ottinger stated.

The team began their rocket launch attempts after successfully passing safety inspections and static displays on June 20. On all three days, GW Rocket arrived at the vertical launch site as soon as it opened because launching early is very desirable since the wind limit for launch is 20 MPH, and winds typically increase as the day progresses. 

GW Rocket Team assembling their rocket

The team was able to load their rocket onto a rail on the first day, but after going vertical realized that one of the three GPS trackers had become disconnected. The next day, they ran into a faulty battery which had to be charged and caused a delay in assembly and launch. Ottinger made the decision to delay until the 3rd day as they now would have to launch in the afternoon when the winds were rising above 20 MPH. The third time was the charm, though, and on June 23, GW Rocket had a successful dual-stage launch!

“Taking part in the competition was truly thrilling, especially working alongside other similar-minded teams and achieving a successful second-stage ignition. The close-knit camaraderie and shared passion for knowledge amongst our teammates played a crucial role in helping us to exceed our own expectations, pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible,” propulsion captain and recent graduate Amy Chang stated.

Unfortunately, the 2nd stage solid propellant booster did show a failure of the motor tube. This caused the loss of approximately half of the 2nd stage thrust, resulting in the rocket apogee being 7,100 feet instead of their predicted 11,300.

“We made history for the team and the competition this year with our successfully-staged dual-stage rocket. I am very proud of what the team was able to accomplish, and I believe next year we will have the knowledge, experience, and motivation to take the project to the next level,” said Phoenix Price, a rising Senior and next year’s Team Captain.

The failure of the 2nd stage motor tube burned the 2nd stage main chute and the payload parachute. The payload included a reaction wheel to obtain stable, clear ground images as part of a camera-based search and rescue project. However, the payload landed ballistically with no parachute and broke into many pieces so no useful payload data could be extracted from the onboard SD cards due to the damage.

“Above all, I am excited that we were able to successfully ignite the second stage of our rocket, and I’m very proud of the team that contributed to that. Coming into this year, we only had four members, three of whom graduated this year. We tackled a really complex design and were able to see it through until a failure by the sustainer motor caused recovery issues for the rest of the rocket. The students who joined this year have accumulated knowledge from our older members, our mentors, and their own experiences, so I’m really excited to see how they make an even better system next year,” said Ottinger.

The GW Rocket team consists primarily of rising seniors and sophomores, so the high hopes for the team to be even more competitive next year are well placed. They already have plans to fix the issues they faced this year and improve the rocket design, such as introducing professional paint jobs, revamped avionics bays, increased propulsion research, and rigorous component testing.

Students attending the fair with company sponsors

Throughout the competition, GW Rocket team members had the opportunity to interact with experienced engineers who volunteered at the Spaceport America Cup to ensure the safety and success of these student-designed systems. They also had the chance to talk with company sponsors about their open positions. Many prior GW Rocket team members now work at top aerospace companies such as Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and more as a direct result of their involvement with GW Rocket.

Ottinger joined GW Rocket her first semester at GW. She has now graduated and said this about her time with the team: “I got my Level 2 High Power Rocketry Certification (L2 HPR Cert) through GW Rocket, which was a really proud moment for me. The team is an interdisciplinary approach to engineering and allows students the chance to work on a hands-on engineering project larger than anything they might tackle in undergraduate classes.”