USC Students' Rocket Reaches Space in Record-Setting Launch

A group of undergraduates launched what is likely the first-ever student designed and student-built rocket past the boundary of space, the University of Southern California (USC) announced today (May 22). Their achievement, if confirmed, completes a decade-long informal competition among engineering schools worldwide to create the first university rocket to achieve spaceflight, officials from USC's Rocket Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement.

Internal analysis shows the students' vehicle, called Traveler IV, crossed the Karman Line that represents the international boundary of space at an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers). The analysis confirmed the achievement with 90% certainty, USC officials added.

Students launched the rocket April 21 from New Mexico's Spaceport America, where future space-tourism provider Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant. The rocket successfully flew aloft at 7:30 a.m. local time, reaching a maximum recorded altitude of 339,800 feet (64.4 miles, or 103.6 km), and a top speed of 3,386 mph (5,449 km/hr).

Related: Virgin Galactic Moving Test Flights to New Mexico to Prep for Commercial Operation 

"[The achievement] makes Traveler IV the first entirely student-designed-and-built rocket to fly to space, as well as the highest flying such craft — doubling the previous altitude record — and the first university rocket to be successfully recovered from space," USC officials said in the statement. 

More than 80 undergraduates participated in the rocket's design, construction and launch effort, which included receiving clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration for the launch. This was the university's fourth attempt to breach the boundary of space.

"After nearly 15 years and probably over a million hours of work, RPL has finally achieved its goal of being the first student group to launch the first student designed and built rocket past the Karman line," lead engineer Dennis Smalling, an astronautical engineer who graduated from USC this spring, said in the statement.

USC identified several other top contenders for first space shot, including Princeton University; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Boston University; the University of California, San Diego; the University of California, Berkeley; and Portland State University. International competitors included Delft University (Netherlands) and TU Vien (Austria).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: