Spaceport America Cup: Rockets in the Desert

Updated: Jan 7

Every summer for the last three years, more than a thousand students representing over a hundred universities have gathered in the New Mexico desert for the culmination of a year-long design build competition organized by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA). The Spaceport America Cup pits collegiate rocket teams from all over the world against each other to see whose rocket can most precisely reach an altitude target while deploying a student-designed-and-built science payload and returning safely to the Earth. Rockets compete in categories of 10,000 ft, 30,000 ft, and 100,000 ft plus altitude targets, divided up by engine type. The event lasts for a week and includes a technical poster session with presentations, and several days at the launch site located on Spaceport America grounds in which students must prepare their rocket for safe flight, pass approval, launch, and recover their systems.


This year, roughly a third of the 120 or so registered teams came from outside the US, including teams from Turkey, Korea, Canada, Australia, and Switzerland. Every team works hard to have the best launch possible; once the rocket takes off, there are no second chances. Not all teams get to launch, and teams are often working overnight in the desert to meet the final launch window closing time to get off the ground. Once launched, the party isn't over, as all teams must go out on foot to recover their rocket; no small feat when the rockets can land several miles away in a desert covered in scrub brush.


It was my privilege to go and photography the event for ESRA this year, and to try to document the hard work and excitement of the students and their launches. I began at the poster session on the first day of the event where I captured teams mingling, discussing their designs, and passing safety inspections. Interesting (to me) side note: I processed a lot more of these in color than I usually do, and I was overall really happy with how they came out!










The CEO of Spaceport America was on hand, as well as the head of ESRA, to kick off the event.




Virgin Galactic spaceship pilot Dave Mackay also addressed the students, along with the first woman to be a commercial astronaut and Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses.



Off to the first day of launches, where the range didn't open until noon but the team area was packed by 6 AM with teams working to get their rockets ready!





Dust could have been a problem, but some creative engineering kept everything clean!



As noon approached, teams lined up to get their rockets inspected and head out to the range to set up.




Rockets set up!



And ready to launch!



Range is going hot...



And blast off! A couple of great launches to start the day.





The "black thunder" motor was by far the most dramatic.



It was great watching the crowd react, and each team celebrate their launch.







For the next day of launches, I stayed at the site and was out walking the team area before sunrise to get shots of the teams hard at work. Many teams showed up as early as 1 AM to start preparing for day two of launches.






And our first sunrise launch...




We had a pretty windy day in there, and had to close the range early.





Overall the event was a great success. Unfortunately there was just too much over the week for me to fit it all in one blog post. If you would like to see more, go check out the ESRA Instagram account @esra.rocket, where I have been posting and will continue to post pictures from the event. Congratulations to everyone who participated and great job on all of the launches!


Tags: #sacup #sacup2019 #irec #irec2019 #sdl2019 #sdlchallenge #esrarocket #rocket #rocketscience #collegerocketry #stem #space #collegecompetition #nasa #spaceportamerica #eventphotography #eventphotographer #newmexico

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© 2019 by Nathan Toner
E - nathan@nathantoner.com

Colorado Springs, CO

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