In 2019, four years after a few friends started MASA-Dearborn, the university’s rocket team, the group finally achieved lift off. The road to launching a student-designed, student-built rocket at the Spaceport America Cup, the premier annual competition for collegiate rocketry teams, had been full of ups and downs. In previous years, they’d attended the competition without a launch, either because they hadn’t quite finished their rocket in time or failed the pre-launch safety inspections. So to watch their 11-foot rocket shoot thousands of feet into the New Mexico sky was a thrill for the team, especially given that the students had done it without the support of a formal university aerospace program. But in some ways, MASA-Dearborn was in real trouble. The hard-working students who had carried the team from its beginnings to a successful launch were all graduating. As they celebrated, no one wanted to admit it, but it was an open question whether there would even be a rocket team next year, let alone one that could build on the previous year’s big success.
Among the few new recruits who’d be around for the following year was Sierra Stockwell, a 19 year old who’d joined the rocket team as part of an intentional campaign to make sure her college experience wasn’t a replay of her later high school years. When she was 15, Stockwell began experiencing mysterious abdominal pain that was so overwhelming at times it kept her out of in-person high school her final two years. She lost friends. Her life shrunk. As college approached, she embarked on a mission to put herself out there. She researched dozens of student organizations and decided to join three: the Political Science Club, the Fashion Club and MASA-Dearborn. It was an eclectic trio, but the rocket team was perhaps the biggest leap of faith. Though Stockwell had always been interested in space, she had zero engineering experience. “I think I’d used a drill, like, three times,” she says. “But then they said the magic words, ‘no experience required,’ and I signed up.”
That first year on the team, Stockwell played a modest role, designing the metal frame that held all the electronics for the rocket’s payload experiment. But she fell in love with the work and attacked every task as if it were a homework assignment in one of her engineering classes. Ever the planner, she mentally sketched out a rise up the rocket team’s ranks that would include being lead of the payload group the following year, then mechanical engineering lead her junior year and team president her senior year. But it turned out a steady leadership climb wasn’t an option. “One day, we were having this celebration for going to competition, and I remember looking around the room and wondering, ‘Who’s going to be mechanical lead next year?’, because I just realized everyone was graduating.” The outgoing seniors put the question right back to her, and shortly after, she was elected mechanical lead, a role that essentially put the soon-to-be-sophomore in charge of making sure the rocket got designed and built. She tried to recruit a few rookies for other roles, like the payload lead, and when that failed, she took the role on herself since she had experience in that area. Then, the team’s president, who had taken an internship at NASA and had been trying to lead the team remotely, announced he was stepping down. With no one else stepping in to fill the void, Stockwell picked up that baton too. Every position she’d hoped to get over the next three years were now hers, all at once.
On his way out the door, her payload lead from her first year half-jokingly warned that it was going to be a “dark time in her life.” In many ways it was. Luckily, her second year, there were some returning members from the electrical team. And she begged her friend Alia Seblini to stay, even though Seblini’s dad was urging her to switch to one of the formula racing teams. But with such thin ranks, Stockwell ended up taking on a huge share of the work herself. That year, in the two weeks leading up to their preliminary design review, a check-in in which the team has to prove to alumni donors and CECS advisers that they’re on the right track, she hardly slept.
“It was exhausting, but I was feeling proud because we’d hustled and actually made our deadline,” Stockwell remembers. “But our adviser, Dr. Line [van Nieuwstadt], had invited a former colleague of hers who worked at NASA to the review. And she was so harsh. I mean, she just tore into us for an hour. It kept going and going. It broke my heart, honestly.” That night, Stockwell was looking forward to finally getting a good night’s rest. But replaying the humiliating review in her head, sleep never came.
The team survived the year, but Stockwell came out of the grueling experience resolved to change everything about how the group worked. She says the team’s founders had inadvertently established a culture where a few leaders took on most of the work and rode themselves into the ground with “tunnel vision” solely focused on launching at competition. Stockwell adopted a new philosophy: “Before we build a rocket, we have to build a team.” She rewrote the team’s constitution so that no member could hold too many key positions at once. She poured tons of energy into recruiting new members — and giving those members actual responsibilities so they felt ownership in the team and could develop real skills. She focused on recruiting women, including into leadership roles. She established a culture where sophomores and juniors would hold the top positions, so that the void left by graduating seniors would never be devastating. Perhaps most importantly, she set a tone that allowed members to take a step back from the team if they were overwhelmed by a tough class or had difficult stuff going on in their personal lives.
Today, the team is living the legacy of Stockwell’s vision. The membership has swelled during her years with the group, two of which she served as president. Previously a bit of a boys club, the team has a female membership that now stands at 40 percent, and women have made up half of the team leads for the past four years. They’re also launching and winning awards at competition. But Stockwell is just as proud that MASA-Dearborn is a fun group to be a part of. Unlike in the past, where Stockwell says there was a palpable, edgy hierarchy between old and new members, now everyone acts like a big group of friends. They support each other. They study for their classes together. They have movie nights. The team has become Stockwell’s, and many others’, second family.
As she heads toward the graduation stage, Stockwell’s feelings are understandably bittersweet. “Obviously, my team has been such a huge part of my life and my experience here,” she says. “It’s not just the people, it’s the concept of the team. It feels like it’s been very foundational to who I’ve been throughout college, and it’s now such a big part of my personality. In a few weeks, I’m no longer going to be a MASA member. I’m going to be something else. An employee, I guess!” It’s a change of identity she’s definitely excited about, especially given that she’s already landed a cool job designing massive assembly lines for electric vehicle manufacturing. But moving on is also easier given she knows she’s leaving the team in a good place. With a healthy group of talented young members and a system built to keep the momentum going, no one’s in a panic that her graduation means the end of the team. Quite the contrary, at competition this summer, the rocket they’ll launch is shooting to reach 30,000 feet, the highest they’ve ever flown. Thanks in large part to Stockwell’s hard work, the limit for the team’s potential is still the sky.
Want to learn more about ‘23 mechanical engineering graduate Sierra Stockwell? Check out our story “Build stuff. Be cool,” where she talks about how working in the MSEL lab changed her life. And “‘Before we build a rocket, we have to build a team’” is a great profile of the hard work, teamwork, friendship and respect that make MASA-Dearborn such a special student group at UM-Dearborn.