Spaceport America Cup soars again

A rocket launches on Friday morning, June 21, during the Spaceport America Cup competition at the spaceport’s vertical launch area in Sierra County.
Las Cruces Bulletin video by Jewel Dominguez

Once more, the Spaceport America Cup competition drew thousands of people from around the world to Las Cruces and Sierra County for a week of research presentations, professional networking and rocket launches at Spaceport America’s vertical launch area.

The nonprofit Experimental Sounding Rocket Association has organized its annual intercollegiate rocketry competition since 2006, which has been cosponsored and hosted at Spaceport America since 2017. This year, 122 teams from around the globe, out of 152 that had signed up, traveled to southern New Mexico for a week’s worth of events, starting with research presentations at the Las Cruces Convention Center before moving to the spaceport for rocket launches.

Teams compete in a series of technical categories based on their rockets’ target apogee (10,000 or 30,000 feet), components and propulsion systems. There is also a research payload competition with cash prizes sponsored by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory; and this year there were new prizes, as well, for video presentations.

Every team, whether they come from near or far, contended not only with design and assembly demands, but also the logistical challenges of transporting motors, fuel and components and assembling a working rocket, presented for safety inspections prior to launch, under tight deadlines and sometimes punishing weather conditions.

This year, searing temperatures on the desert plain outside of Truth or Consequences, combined with high winds and dust, forced delays. A large dust storm system known as a haboob that landed on Wednesday night “decimated all of the preparations, the pads, the base camp areas,” as the spaceport’s director of site operations, Chris Lopez, put it during the awards ceremony Saturday night at the Pan American Center.

During a long pause in launches Friday morning because of overcast weather, teams bided their time. Two lines of vehicles waited for safety inspections, while teams sheltering under rows of tents alternately napped, worked on rocket bodies or motors, or socialized with other teams. Despite the wind, one group tossed a frisbee back and forth.


New Mexico State University’s team, the Atomic Aggies, were among many teams that camped out near the spaceport waiting for the gates to open at 5 a.m. They were hoping for enough visibility to permit the launch schedule to resume, but they still worried about the harsh sunlight.

“We’re made out of carbon fiber,” Daniel Bluedorn said, referring to their rocket. “It’s not very conductive. (Harsh sunlight) melts your solder and messes with your electronics.”

A team from the University of Texas at Dallas said their rocket was waiting on a concrete pad strapped to a launch rail, waiting out the team’s second weather-related delay.

Teams that fly in for the competition, particularly on international flights, have to be creative, transporting the parts with which they are allowed to fly and acquiring other items locally once they get here. A team from the Mahidol University Institute of Technology in Thailand said they had been here since early June, building their propulsion system with some materials they shipped ahead of themselves.

Launches continued into Saturday, and that evening the teams assembled for a two-and-a-half-hour celebration at the Pan Am, where the prizes in research payloads, video challenges and technical awards were announced, leading up to the top trophies: The Spaceport America Cup (also referred to as the Genesis Cup) and the Chile Cup, a regional prize for teams from New Mexico and west Texas inaugurated in 2019.

The team from University of New Mexico took home the Chile Cup this year, and the top prize went to the University of Maryland, College Park, which had taken first place in the 10,000-foot-apogee, solid fuel, SRAD (student researched and designed) division. The runner-up for the Cup was Istanbul University.

Spaceport America Cup, rockets, Sierra County