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NASA Rocket
A rocket takes flight during the 2017 Student Launch Initiative competition in Alabama. (Fred Deaton/NASA)

A team of engineering students has been selected to participate in NASA’s Student Launch project, which pits 45 teams from across the country against one another in an attempt to overcome a specific challenge.

This year’s competition, held during rocket trials April 4–8 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, requires teams to build a reusable rocket capable of carrying a payload at least one mile high and successfully landing back on Earth.

Teams have a choice of one of three payloads:

  • a camera that can identify and discern between targets in flight
  • a rover that deploys upon landing, moves at least five feet, and extends solar panels
  • an onboard system that can triangulate a landing within a specified zone

“We made a unanimous decision to go with the rover option,” said Grayson Hawkins, a senior in mechanical engineering who co-leads the team with Theresa Palandro, a senior in aerospace engineering. “We must consider problems such as ‘Can the main axle handle 20 Gs of acceleration?’ and ‘What is the most efficient way to stow the rover during flight?’”

This marks the first time UT is taking part in the 18-year-old competition. Other Southeastern Conference schools participating include Auburn University, the University of Florida, and Vanderbilt University.

More than 30 UT students have had interest in the project, with about a dozen in the core UT Rocketry Team.

While they are allowed to have faculty supervision, the students must do all of the work themselves.

“It is our hope that we are creating permanent roots, so that future students will have these and more opportunities,” said Hawkins.

The group is working under UT’s Student Space Technology Association—founded by Hawkins three years ago and part of the Center for Student Engagement—and has been supported by the Tickle College of Engineering.

Drawings of the rocket, details about their plans, and timelines are included in the team’s preliminary design review, located on their website.


David Goddard (865-974-0683,