On a warm Saturday morning, a group of UCF students set out on a mile-long walk across the Mojave Desert to retrieve the rocket they launched at the Friends of Amateur Rocketry 51025 Competition. For some, the walk would have been a tiring trek. But for the Knights, this was a victory lap. They just successfully launched the rocket that they built from scratch — with no prior experience — 10,750 feet in the air.
The launch was so successful it landed the team in first place for the 10K Open Class category, marking the first time a team from UCF has won a top spot in this competition. Three UCF teams also earned first, second and third place in the 5,000-feet division of the competition.
“To win first place in the 10,000 feet competition is almost surreal,” says Dawson Wells ’22, an aerospace engineering major and the recovery lead for the team. “Starting this project, none of us had any prior rocketry experience. We had to do our own research, reach out to UCF alumni and connect with many rocketry experts to make this project work and succeed. There was a lot of trial and error, but we kept putting in effort and never gave up.”
The journey to the FAR competition started two years ago, when a group of Senior Design students, led by aerospace engineering alumnus Jake Margerum ’21, began work on the rocket for their capstone project, sponsored by Aerojet Rocketdyne. After they graduated, the project for the 10,000-feet division continued with the current team, comprised of seven mechanical and aerospace engineering majors who are now graduates: Ryan Cornish ’22, Zachary Nikollaj ’22, Edwin Oviedo ’22, Samuel Palmer ’22, Emma Parrish ’22, Nicholas Solazzo ’22 and Wells. With no background in rocketry, the Knights assembled the rocket, tested it and presented it at the Senior Design Showcase in April this year.
Two months and 3,000 miles later, five members of the team found themselves at a launch pad on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert. At 4:30 a.m., they began assembling their rocket and by 7 a.m., it was soaring through the air. The rocket surpassed 10,000 feet, which is higher than six Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other, and secured victory for UCF against 15 other teams.
“Everything went according to plan and when the rocket had landed, we saw that our rover had come out of the rocket on the ground successfully,” Parrish says. “It was such a great experience to attend the competition and meet all of the teams that are also extremely passionate about rocketry from different universities.”
Other UCF teams have competed at previous FAR competitions. In 2019, the student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics placed second in the 30K Open Class category.
For the winning team, the journey to the top took time and effort. But the lessons they learned in the process taught them that they have what it takes to go far in their field.
“Along the way, we learned so much about what it means to be an engineer,” Nikollaj says. “Problems always arise and there might not be an immediate solution, but with a solid team like ours — as well as the ability to reach out and ask for help — anything is possible.”