The Rocket Mocs have launched into a national competition for the fifth consecutive year.
In early October, the team—comprised of students in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga College of Engineering and Computer Science—learned of its acceptance into the 2023 Student Launch Challenge. The NASA-sponsored yearly competition calls for student teams to create, construct and launch a high-powered amateur rocket and scientific payload to an altitude of between 4,000 and 6,000 feet.
The UTC organization is one of 51 university-level teams moving forward in the competition. The nine-month-long challenge will culminate with an on-site launch event near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in April.
Just days after receiving the good news, team members began building their certification rockets.
“Today is an exercise for these students to learn how to build rockets. This is their first shot at understanding what it means to build and be successful,” explained Trevor Elliott, UC Foundation associate professor of mechanical engineering and the Rocket Mocs’ faculty advisor.
Elliott said the team is comprised of mechanical engineering students in his senior design class—all in the first semester of a two-semester sequence.
“This is the first time they have been involved in a competition with a rocket,” he said. “To go through this process, they have to understand the stability of a rocket. They have to understand construction kit techniques. They have to understand materials and how all that plays together so they can design a cohesive rocket that will be safe to fly.”
The team lead is Mason Russell, a native of Alpharetta, Georgia.
“This is something you hear about as a little kid and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’” Russell said. “When (Elliott) brought up NASA as our senior project, all of a sudden, that dream that you have as a little kid becomes an opportunity that’s right there in front of your face—and it comes with a lot of nerves and stress.
“But when you take a step back and see the reality of this, you’re like, ‘Wow, we’re competing in a NASA competition,’ and that’s really cool.”
As team lead, Russell said he will oversee everything going on throughout the process, starting with the 80-page proposal submitted for the competition.
“That was longer than any report we’ve done,” he said with a laugh, “and that’s just the start of it. The reports only get bigger from there, and that comes with a lot of data and a lot of experience. There’s a learning curve.”
There are many different components in the building of the rockets, such as airframe, payload, avionics, an integrated camera system that takes photos autonomously, and safety.
Russell knows a thing or two about being part of a team. He initially came to UTC in 2018 to play football.
“I really enjoy leadership roles,” said the former Mocs offensive lineman. “As long as you have good communication and good rapport with your team, you can be in this role.”
Five other students lead different departments, including Dottie McSpadden, overseeing avionics and STEM engagement.
McSpadden, a native of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, explained that avionics are the electrical components of the rockets.
“For the payload system, we have to connect a motor to the recovery system, to the camera, that will take pictures and send them to our computer system. That’s going to be in the rocket as well,” she said. “Those are all the electrical components and we have to get those wired properly. We have to make sure they’re all powered properly and that backup batteries are also on board in case some fail.
“One of the main electrical components is called the altimeter, which will tell the parachute when to deploy so the rocket comes down at a safe speed and doesn’t become a missile.”
McSpadden called it “crazy” that she’s now participating in a competition of this type, saying, “I did not expect to be where I am right now, but I’m excited for what’s to come.”
“I’m really eager to learn everything I can from this,” she said. “I don’t have the biggest electronics background, so I’m learning as much as I can so we can produce the best rocket for our team and a rocket suitable to win.
“Hopefully, this will open future opportunities that I haven’t exactly thought of yet.”
The other team members are Seth De Beauclair (assistant team lead/verification officer), Alec Blade (safety officer/payload lead), Matthew Neff (airframe lead), Logan Friday (recovery lead), Benjiman Holcombe, Elijah Schmiesing-Joyce, Gabriel Waters, LaShawn Stutz and Mat Ormaza.
The Rocket Mocs have a storied history. In 2018, they earned the No. 1 ranking in the U.S., launching a rocket to 11,563 feet—a figure that helped them win the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space Rocketry Contest.
In 2020, they launched a rocket a world-record 17,267 feet, which was confirmed by the Tripoli Rocketry Association—a nonprofit that focuses on amateur rocketry. That distance is the equivalent of 3.3 miles.