The first entirely student-designed and built rocket reached the space

The first-ever student designed and student-built rocket past the boundary of space.


A team of undergraduates at the University of Southern California’s Rocket Propulsion Laboratory just successfully launched an 8-inch diameter, 13-foot tall rocket called Traveler IV. This is the first-ever student designed and student-built rocket that launches a single stage rocket past the Kármán line, they announced on May 22.

The USC team is one of the several groups of college students across the United States and Europe that have been racing to send a rocket above the Kármán line- the altitude of 62 miles (100 km) which is widely considered to be the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

The students launched it on April 21 from New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Traveler IV successfully flew aloft at 7:30 a.m. local time. Traveler IV rapidly accelerated at over 17g’s to its top speed of 4970 ft/s, or Mach 5.1, over the course of its 11.5 second motor burn, then cruised the remaining 140 seconds, until 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).

Powered by solid rocket fuel, the rocket featured only a single-stage rocket design, instead of those multi-stage layouts that split and ignite space-optimized thrusters mid-flight to reach orbit.

Students from USC’s Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (RPL) prepare Traveler IV for launch. Photo/Courtesy Neil Tewksbury

RPL’s avionics system, custom-designed and built by RPL’s large team of student avionics engineers, recorded the flight using its onboard sensors and deployed the vehicle’s parachutes at apogee, allowing the rocket to safely glide down to earth.

90-plus students participated in the rocket 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).

Looking forward, the team has already begun design work on the next mission—a liquid-fueled vehicle aimed at its own world record. Additionally, they have begun conceptual work for ever-more ambitious projects like CubeSat deployment, active rocket stabilization, and new solid engine designs.


See stories of the future in your inbox each morning.