First Nations Rocket Team Prepares for Launch

Students from the UC Davis First Nations Launch team.
Students from the First Nations Launch team at the University of California, Davis.

Students from the First Nations Launch team at the University of California, Davis, will launch a rocket this Saturday, May 15 — on behalf of a team from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. The Canadian team is unable to carry out its own launch due to pandemic restrictions.

The rocket launch is part of the First Nations Launch competition sponsored by NASA and the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium at Carthage College, Kenosha, Wisconsin. The UC Davis team already carried out its own launch at a site in the Mojave Desert April 17.

The May 15 launch will take place at the Maddox Dairy facility near Fresno, California. Due to safety precautions, entry to the launch site is restricted to team members.

Under competition rules, the Queens University team will carry out the launch via Zoom, giving instructions to the UC Davis team on site.

“We can’t turn the switches without their instructions,” said UC Davis team lead Andrea Lopez Argüello, an undergraduate majoring in physics, with an emphasis in astrophysics, in the College of Letters and Science.

Other student members of the UC Davis team are: Tyler Mayxonesing, majoring in computer engineering; Willie Feng-Liu, electrical and computer engineering; Anthony Pham, electrical engineering; and Pratham Goradia, aerospace engineering. The team is organized through the UC Davis chapter of AISES, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Advisors for the First Nations Launch team are James Letts, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology, and Maria Maldonado, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Mentoring the team on rocketry are Becky Green and William Walby, who both have level 3 certification from the National Association of Rocketry. Colton Baumler, a UC Davis graduate student in biochemistry, molecular, cellular and developmental biology with experience in mechanical engineering, also advised the team.

Developing design skills through rocketry

The Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium First Nations Launch competition offers students attending Tribal Colleges and Universities, Native American Non-Tribal Institutions as well as active AISES college chapters the opportunity to demonstrate engineering and design skills through high-power rocketry. The competition requires teams of undergraduate students to conceive, design, fabricate and compete with high-power rockets. The rockets have to meet a series of challenges, including reaching a height of 3,500 to 4,000 feet, having a hatch door that opens at maximum height, and deploying two parachutes, which slow the rocket’s descent and bring it to Earth intact.

Most competition points are awarded for design, with a series of detailed monthly reports. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams were unable to complete a test launch prior to the main competition launch. 

On its first venture into the competition, the UC Davis team collected a series of awards including second place for written reports and oral presentation, and first place for outreach to tribal-affiliated schools. The team was awarded a grant of $15,000 to compete in the NASA Student Launch Initiative competition in Georgia next spring.

“I’m really, really proud of how well the team did,” Letts said.

Andrea Lopez Argüello, an undergraduate majoring in physics with an emphasis in astrophysics.
Andrea Lopez Argüello makes last-minute adjustments to the UC Davis rocket before launch on April 17.

Lopez Argüello discovered the competition through a national AISES conference and convinced Letts to sign on.

“We are a small chapter, and these opportunities do not come along often,” Lopez Argüello said. “As someone who is Indigenous and undocumented, I want to take any opportunity I can.”

While a student at community college, Lopez Argüello had spent a week at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center working on science curriculum development for students from kindergarten to third grade. Beyond that, she had no previous experience with NASA or rocketry.

“It was a really big learning curve for me and for the team,” she said. Due to pandemic restrictions, while all the team worked on rocket design and writing reports, Lopez Argüello did most of the actual construction herself with help from Green and Walby.

“I’m very impressed with how Andrea has taken this on and got it done,” Letts said.

Through the competition, the students and advisors have earned level 1 certification from the National Association of Rocketry. Lopez Argüello is working toward her level 2 certification, allowing the team to work with larger and more powerful rockets.

Andy Fell, UC Davis News and Media Relations