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Teammates from the University of Washington’s Society for Advanced Rocket Propulsion carry hardware during the Spaceport America Cup competition in New Mexico. (UW-SARP via Facebook)

If at first you don’t succeed … try, try, try again. That’s the formula that the University of Washington’s Society for Advanced Rocket Propulsion followed to win the top prize at this year’s Spaceport America Cup competition, held over the weekend in New Mexico.

The SARP team took the Judge’s Choice and Overall Winner Award at the world’s largest collegiate rocket engineering contest, which is run by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association and drew 120 teams from 14 countries. Each team is required to design, build and fly a rocket that can reach 10,000 feet or 30,000 feet, depending on the contest category.

SARP’s chief engineer, Jess Grant, said this year’s win comes after a string of three disappointments.

In 2016, UW’s team experienced a failure during a test flight in May, and couldn’t launch its hybrid rocket during what was then known as the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition.

At the first Spaceport America Cup in 2017, the team’s rocket experienced an anomaly that resulted in the rocket being lost for nearly a year. Nevertheless, “our design and performance impressed judges enough to receive the second-place award in our category,” Grant said in an email.

Last year, SARP’s rocket experienced a structural failure during its Spaceport America flight. “Our rocket was recovered in pretty bad shape,” Grant recalled. “Judges were again impressed, and we won first in our category.”

This year, the rocket rose to a height of 17,000 feet and was successfully recovered. Grant explained that category award winners are determined on the basis of several metrics, including a preliminary design report, a technical presentation at the event and pre-launch judging as well as flight performance and recovery.

When all the metrics were added up, the UW team took first place in the 30,000-foot category for hybrid or liquid-fueled rockets — plus the two plum prizes. The awards were presented on Saturday night.

SARP has about 150 active members this year, Grant said. “Only about 25 of us traveled to competition this year, but we couldn’t have done it without all the support of the rest of the team back home, along with our great UW faculty and staff who allow us to build this rocket almost entirely on campus,” he said.

Grant also credited SARP’s donors and sponsors, “since rockets don’t come cheap, even when we build it ourselves.”

“For myself and the other graduating seniors, it’s been a long journey to this point,” Grant said, “and I think more than a few of us feel that now we’ve really graduated even though we walked a week ago.”

Spaceport America should start hosting even higher-profile, higher-flying launches later this year, if Virgin Galactic sticks to its schedule. Virgin Galactic is in the midst of shifting operations from its testing and development facility at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port to New Mexico’s Spaceport America, and could start sending passengers on suborbital space trips later this year.

For the record, here’s the list of Spaceport America Cup winners, including top teams in the COTS (commercial off the shelf) and SRAD (student researched and developed) solid rocket motor categories as well as the categories for hybrid, liquid and other propulsion systems:

  • Team Sportsmanship Award: Team 45 – University of Waterloo. Honorable Mention: Team 6 – University of Sydney.
  • Team Spirit Award: Team 103 – Samsun University. Honorable Mention: Team 25 – University of Wisconsin – Platteville.
  • Jim Furfaro Award for Technical Excellence: Team 02 – AGH University of Science and Technology.
  • Dr. Gil Moore Award for Innovation: Team 01 – George Washington University.
  • Charles Hoult Award for Modeling and Simulation: Team 24 – Georgia Institute of Technology.
  • James Barrowman Award for Flight Dynamics: Team 67 – University of Louisville – J.B Speed School of Engineering.
  • 10K COTS: 1st Place: Team 06 – University of Sydney. 2nd Place: Team 37 – ETH Zurich.
  • 10K SRAD Solid Motors: 1st Place: Team 01 – George Washington University. 2nd Place: Team 19 – West Virginia University.
  • 10K Hybrid / Liquid / Other: 1st Place: Team 40 – Polytechnique Montreal. 2nd Place: Team 02 – AGH University of Science and Technology.
  • 30K COTS: 1st Place: Team 24 – Georgia Institute of Technology. 2nd Place: Team 04 – ETS Montreal
  • 30K SRAD Solid Motors: 1st Place: Team 69 – University of Minnesota Twin Cities. 2nd Place: Team 66 – University of Minnesota – Duluth.
  • 30K Hybrid / Liquid / Other: 1st Place: Team 52 – University of Washington. 2nd Place: Team 45 – University of Waterloo.
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