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College Students Take Hands-On Approach To Rocket Science


A few dozen college students are trying to do something usually reserved for global superpowers and corporate giants. They're trying to send a rocket into space. Their project is called Operation Space, and it completed its first launch this weekend. Saad Mirza is one of the dozens of students from various university rocket clubs who joined the project. He's the design lead, and he joins me now from New Mexico. Welcome.

SAAD MIRZA: Thank you very much, Don.

GONYEA: So your project was trying to get a rocket about 62 miles up, just over that line where Earth's atmosphere ends and where space begins. And you were doing this from a launch complex in the desert called Spaceport America. So how'd it go?

MIRZA: So, overall, I'm immensely proud of my team for what we were able to accomplish. We didn't have some major university backing us or major corporation backing us. We had two launches, and unfortunately neither one made it, but we got very, very close.

GONYEA: What went wrong?

MIRZA: We had a successful first stage burn. And unfortunately, seconds into the second stage burn, the vehicle spiraled out of control and basically disintegrated.

GONYEA: So, again, you're all college students, but nobody is getting paid. Nobody's getting college credit for this.

MIRZA: That's right. We're investing thousands of hours completely voluntarily.

GONYEA: And how are you funding the project?

MIRZA: We basically reach out to small engineering firms from all of our hometowns and other small companies. And we've had a pretty good success rate convincing them to support us.

GONYEA: And what's your budget been?

MIRZA: Our budget is around $130,000. And that might sound like a lot, but it's a lot - it's way, way cheaper than, you know, most space programs.

GONYEA: SpaceX probably spends that on lunch.


MIRZA: Sounds about right.

GONYEA: So how did this all come about, and how did you get involved?

MIRZA: My partner, Josh Farahzad, just about this time last year, you know, he started thinking - well, what if I launched a rocket into outer space? You know, he didn't really know what he was doing. So he started sending emails to pretty much every university rocketry team in the country. And I was doing a launch with the Princeton University Rocketry Club. He saw our livestream, and he had reached out. I guess after that, I spent thousands of hours just working with Josh one-on-one and leading this very, very tremendous team.

GONYEA: And as the team grew to - what? - I guess about 40 people, you're communicating with one another via a Slack channel.

MIRZA: That's right. You know, at some point, we didn't pay for the Slack premium account. So, you know, I think within a month or two, our messages capped at 10,000. So we started losing our data.

GONYEA: Well, what's the big goal here, aside from actually getting a rocket into space?

MIRZA: So I think the bigger picture and the bigger goal here is to really inspire all students from around the world that, you know, with the advent of the Internet, we're able to come together to literally, you know, try to put something into outer space. You know, and if we can do that, then there's really no limit to what any students can, you know, achieve on the Internet.

GONYEA: And you carried out two launches this weekend. OK. They weren't an unqualified success, but it sounds like you made progress. You learned a lot. So on that part, I guess we say congratulations and carry on.

MIRZA: Thank you so much.

GONYEA: That's Saad Mirza, the design lead for Operation Space. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.