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UC Aerospace rockets to victory at Spaceport America Cup

02 July 2024

For the second year running, UC’s Aerospace team took home the trophy in the 30,000-foot Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) category at the Spaceport America Cup.

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Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | سԹ (UC)’s Aerospace team competed against more than 120 teams from 20 countries, with their single-stage rocket, Kārearea, soaring to success under the leadership of fourth-year mechanical engineering student James Graham.

Graham, who served as Team Lead, expressed immense pride in the team's accomplishment.

"It was exhilarating to win," Graham says, reflecting on the intense competition. "Last year we won but didn’t get the award on the day. To accept the award at the competition this year is beyond words."

Graham, a member of the UC Aerospace Club since he started at UC, is currently pursuing a minor in Aerospace Engineering, and the Spaceport project has contributed to his final year. "This year, I led the team as part of my honours project," Graham explained.

Graham emphasised the collaborative effort behind their success, acknowledging the help of sponsors and support from the UC Mechanical Engineering Faculty. "We wouldn't have been able to do this without everyone’s help," he says.

UC academic supervisor John Cater and Project Client Bruce Robertson accompanied the nine students to New Mexico. As Project Client, Roberton’s role was to ensure the students have a customer for the project to provide a real-life professional setting.

“A lot of the requirements for the honours project are around the competition, but the client also sets a path and works with the students to achieve the right outcome,” says Robertson. “With a project such as this, where a competition is involved, the students are really motivated, they’re completely committed. It makes my role easy, I’m there to remind them, hey, we’re going to win this.”

Reflecting on the technical aspects of their achievement, Graham detailed the complexities involved in crafting the rocket. "The motor and flight computers are off the shelf. Everything else, except for the tubes, were all manufactured and finished by students," he explains. The meticulous planning paid off with a flawless launch and recovery. "We had a fully nominal flight and recovery, we got the rocket back and there weren't any scratches," Graham said.

Graham was surprised by the significance of the achievement, saying how “awesome” it was to see Space Minister Judith Collins comment on their win.

“Ambition like this is exactly what we need to see more of, and the team’s international success is great to see,” Minister Collins said.

As Graham prepares to finish his studies at UC, he’s looking ahead to a career in the aerospace industry.

"Now that Spaceport is done, next for me is finding a job. I hope to end up in the aerospace industry, and like everyone I guess, I want to make something that goes to space."

The following companies and organisations supported the UC Aerospace team to compete in New Mexico: RD Petroleum, Superior Minerals, ChristchurchNZ, Track Industries, Perfect Autobody, UC Students Association, Autographicnz, Shamrock, Pederson Reid, C-Tech, Pilot Brands, Ansys and Leap Australia.

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