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110 Student Rocketry Teams Will Compete in 'Spaceport America Cup'

Companies all over the United States will be hunting for new rocketeers to hire during the inaugural Spaceport America Cup this week, where students will fire their rocket creations as high as 30,000 feet (9,150 meters).

The competition features 110 teams that will try to fire an 8.8-lb. (4 kilograms) payload to either 10,000 feet or 30,000 feet (3,050 or 9,150 m), depending on the system they chose. The flight operations cap several days of activities that include ample opportunity to network with future employers.

Past participants in a predecessor program run by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA) ended up with jobs at many major U.S. companies, ranging from commercial spaceflight firms such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, to established NASA spaceflight vendors such as United Launch Alliance and Scaled Composites, to big aerospace companies such as Boeing. [Now Boarding: The Top 10 Private Spaceships]

"Employers get to look at a résumé, but also get to look at a rocket," said ESRA President Matthew Ellengold. After years of running its own competition, ESRA co-founded the cup with Spaceport America (opens in new tab), a facility in New Mexico whose anchor tenant is Virgin Galactic.

"These are the employees you want," Ellengold told "They are demonstrating right in front of you they are highly competent, and they live and breathe aerospace."

More than 100 student rocketry teams are signed up to compete in the first Spaceport America Cup, which will be held June 20 through June 24 in New Mexico. (Image credit: Spaceport America/ESRA)

The competition is also an opportunity for lesser-known aerospace programs to give graduates flight opportunities in front of name-brand companies, said Nancy Squires, an adviser to the Oregon State University rocket team and an ESRA board member.

While her university does not have as large a budget as similar institutions in adjacent California (an aerospace powerhouse), she said that participating in key events such as this one allows the students to show their stuff. 

"The hands-on experience, the collaborative team experience and the professionalism" are all valuable, she told

Full roster of events

In addition to the competition, the cup will feature several opportunities for students to demonstrate the technical knowledge they acquired while building the rockets.

The events kick off Tuesday (June 20) with teams participating in a poster session, using display boards and hardware samples to show their rocket development. A subset of those teams — those eligible for technical excellence awards — will also do podium sessions to talk about their rocket designs.

Wednesday (June 21) will feature presentations by Spaceport America on its suborbital opportunities in the near future. Anchor tenant Virgin Galactic periodically runs test flights there for its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, but the port's customers and tenants also include Lockheed Martin, Armadillo Aerospace and UP Aerospace.

Launch operations will take place on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (June 22 to June 24). Teams are eligible for six awards in flight performance and four in rocketry skills (technical excellence, innovation, modeling and flight dynamics).

The new competition came about after Spaceport America attended ESRA's 2016 International Rocket Engineering Competition in Green River, Utah. The competition had then been running annually for 11 years, growing from a handful of teams when the program started to 40 teams on last year's roster.

"We could see that ESRA was outgrowing the current location and invited the ESRA board out to Spaceport America in August of 2016," Tammara Anderton, Spaceport America's vice president of business development, told via email.

"We became partners to form the Spaceport America Cup," Anderton added. "Once we made the announcement, we were so surprised when over 110 teams from 12 countries signed up and paid to participate. We are obviously very pleased to have been able to bring the world's largest rocket engineering competition to Spaceport America."

More information about the cup is available at

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Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.