Reaching new heights with MASA

October 16, 2023

UM-Dearborn’s student rocketry team pushed to 30,000 feet in competition this summer, learning important lessons about engineering, teamwork and working through challenges along the way.

Photo of the UM-Dearborn MASA rocket team
UM-Dearborn's Michigan Aeronautical Science Association team traveled to the New Mexico desert for the Spaceport America Cup, a rocketry competition attended by 150 teams from across the world.

Bags packed and ready from the night before, it was 4 a.m. when 26 UM-Dearborn Michigan Aeronautical Science Association team members made their way out the door. They had traveled 26 hours and over 1,700 miles by car over the recent days to the New Mexico desert for the Spaceport America Cup, a rocketry competition attended by 150 teams from across the world. It’s what they’d been working toward all of the 2022-23 year. The team headed now to the launch site where tents and the 101 degree heat of New Mexico in June awaited them. 

This was the first time the team – or any team in UM-Dearborn MASA’s history for that matter – would attempt a launch to 30,000 feet at competition. Progressing to 30,000 feet had been a long-standing goal of the student group, but it didn’t come without obstacles. Andrey Shturko, the current president of MASA-D, served as the airframe and propulsion lead for the 2023 design. He explains that increasing to this altitude would mean the rocket will travel much faster, at almost two mach, or twice the speed of sound. “We would have to do completely different simulations and rocket configurations would be really complex. We would have to overcome a lot of challenges,” Shturko emphasized. But after successful launches and award recognition at the 10,000 foot mark, the team felt it was time to push forward. 

After an exciting but strenuous year preparing a rocket for this new feat, the team conducted a test launch to simulate flight critical events a month out from competition. What happened was the worst case scenario. The motor they purchased had a manufacturer defect causing it to burn more quickly on one side. This caused a sudden shock in the airframe and catastrophic damage to their rocket. 

“We had everything ready. And then a month before, we didn't have anything. So it was all this rushing again to get things done,” explains MASA mechanical lead Bruna Osako Rocha. “The first reaction was everyone was a little frustrated but it was such a bonding time period because I could see how everyone was so passionate about it. They would stay here everyday working so hard and you would see people in the summer coming here at night just because they really like what they are doing.”

Photos of MASA students working on a rocket in the IAVS
Bruna Osako Rocha, center, and MASA team members work in the IAVS.

The team worked around the clock to rebuild the airframe and mechanics of the rocket from scratch,and  things did not slow down once the team arrived in New Mexico for competition. Mohamed El-Abdallah, the current electrical lead for the team, recalls discovering during a last minute test that the rocket’s cameras had stopped working the night before the competition launch. He and his teammate spent the night coding on a TV in their New Mexico rental, trying to get them back online. 


The cameras and payload board – a portion of the rocket the team designed to hold the electronic boards and equipment to collect flight data – had been cut the night before and the team’s payload lead was attempting to make repairs to the airbrakes on-site.

“Even to say we had not successful electronics, it doesn’t mean that we still didn’t put in effort up to that very last moment. And we were always just trying to find ways to get it working no matter what,” says El-Abdallah. “That’s how the real world is. Everything that you do the first time is not going to be 100% correct.”

The rocket moved to the launch pad with only the GPS and the alternator operational. Despite the setbacks, the team saw its hard work pay off when the rocket launched successfully. While everything did not go according to plan, the team notes some massive wins from its first exploration to 30,000 feet. One of them being reaching that height to begin with. 

“At 10,000 feet, you don’t have to worry about being supersonic, you don’t have to worry about the vibrations of the rocket being stronger than usual. So when we went for our first 30K, it was very exciting,” says Osako Rocha. “We don’t see it as a failure at all because in 2024 we are still going to do 30K and we know what went wrong. So we know where to focus.”

Osako Rocha also notes that it was great to see her teammates work together and see so many people excited about engineering. It tells her the future of this team is strong because they collaborate and there is an opportunity to learn – even when complications arise.

Photo of MASA students working on a rocket in the IAVS
Andrey Shturko, current president of MASA, works with his team. Shturko is pictured on the right.

“Having this experience and these lessons before getting your first job, it’s essential because you need to know how to not just solve problems technically, but in a team,” says Osako Rocha. 

Shturko sees the same value for MASA members in the experiences they gain while participating in the organization.“One difference between being a student team and being part of actual industry is that we have the opportunity to fail and learn because we are students and all of us are new,” he says. "We don’t require any experience or any knowledge and our main goal is to learn and prepare students for what’s actually going to happen when you go into the industry.”

He also empathizes how much they’ve learned from their first experience at 30,000 feet and the technical issues they now know how to solve for next year’s competition. The team bond that was built this year by pushing themselves to new heights also cannot be overemphasized. While that bond is particularly strengthened by the 10 days spent together on the yearly trip to New Mexico, the team makes sure to keep everyone connected throughout the year with monthly events, good team atmosphere, positive and inclusive team leadership, and active recruiting. 

MASA team members will spend this academic year preparing for 2024’s competition in June. Their goals? Building off of the lessons learned from this year as they continue in the 30,000 foot category, while keeping MASA strong and maintaining a positive team culture.

Article by Kathryn Bourlier.