By Jack Stewart
Not long ago, only national governments had the resources to reach space. Then the tech titans proved anyone with a few billion dollars could get there. Now, a bunch of students have shown that getting off Earth doesn’t even have to cost that much.
On a peanuts budget and working in their spare time, engineering undergrads at the University of Southern California designed and manufactured a rocket they call Fathom II. In March, they launched it from Spaceport America in New Mexico. It reached 144,000 feet before deploying its parachute and returning to Earth. That’s around five times the cruising altitude of a passenger plane, doubling the height of the group’s previous launch, and sets a new altitude record for a student-built rocket.
Although other amateur groups have reached higher altitudes, they’ve resorted to commercially available or professionally made bits of kit. The USC team built every part of Fathom II from scratch.
The ultimate goal of USC’s Rocket Propulsion Laboratory is the Karman line, the edge of space, at 330,000 feet. For that they’ll need a new, larger, rocket. “We’re building the flight vehicle over the summer, and should launch next semester,” says Haley Karow, launch coordinator for the team. Take that, NASA.