Next Generation of Rocket Scientists Blasts Off at Caltech

In keeping with Pasadena’s role as an epicenter of space research and technology, $1 million prize was awarded to university rocket team at Caltech Monday

Published : Tuesday, June 25, 2019 | 5:11 AM

The next generation of American aeronautics engineers, and possibly astronauts, was christened at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech Monday. Dozens of university teams from the U.S. and Canada pitched their programs to a team of aeronautics professionals and academics—including former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin—as part of Phase One of the Base 11 Space Challenge.

The Base 11 Space Challenge is a $1 million-plus prize for a student-led university team that successfully designs, builds, and launches a liquid-propelled, single-stage rocket to the edge of outer space—an altitude of 100 kilometers, known as “the Karman Line”—by December 30, 2021.

When the presentations  were over, and the judging completed, Landon Taylor, chairman and CEO, Base 11, announced the winners. The Michigan Aeronautical Science Association (MASA) from the University of Michigan, lifted off with the day’s biggest prize, a $25,000 check to continue their work and competition in the Base 11 challenge.

Winning $15,000 for their work was Concordia University in Montreal. The third place prize of $10,000 went to Portland State University.

“We’re so excited,” said MASA team representative John Letarte. “When it was down to the end, we thought, ‘Well, it’s all or nothing.’ When they said, “MASA,” I thought, hmmm.” Chief Engineer Jack Taliercio then piped up, “Oh, that’s us!”

Said Taliercio, “We were hoping. We were the first team to submit a lot of the documentation, and we were the first team to earn its Hotfire certification.”

A hotfire certification is based on a successful test of liquid or solid fuel rocket engines.

‘We were still really nervous, because there were so many teams doing so many great things here today,” Taliercio added.

According to team representative Katie Lerond, the team is working towards its second hotfire test, but no actual rocket flights are planned until the final Base 11 competition.

MASA has competed in the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), at Spaceport America in New Mexico, for the past five years, according to their website. MASA enters student-developed rockets in both the 10,000 ft and 30,000 feet categories. At IREC 2017, MASA was awarded the inaugural Spaceport America Cup, which is given to the team determined by the judges to be the overall winner of the competition.

Most recently, MASA became the first team to launch and recover a liquid bi-propellant rocket at IREC 2018.

“That rocket,” said Taliercio, “was about a hundred times less powerful than the rocket we’re building now.”

According to a Base 11 press release, annual competitions and prizes will mark milestone achievements in the overall process, including design of the liquid-fuel rocket, static testing of the engine, and smaller pop-up innovation challenges,  will be announced as the year continues. The fully funded final purse is the $1 million prize for launching the rocket to the edge of space.

“The mission behind the Base 11 Space Challenge is to dramatically increase the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent in the United States with greater representation and inclusion of women and minorities, while empowering the future workforce with the education and skill-training necessary for jobs in the aerospace and related industries,” according to a Base 11 statement..

Base 11 is a nonprofit workforce development accelerator focused on solving the STEM talent pipeline crisis being fueled by the underrepresentation of women and minorities. The organization develops partnerships with industry, academia and philanthropy which deliver to employers a pre-recruitment pipeline of trained, STEM talent.

By establishing Innovation Centers integrated with hands-on project-based learning and STEM entrepreneurship training, Base 11 and its partners set students on direct pathways to four-year STEM degrees, STEM jobs, and the opportunity to launch their own STEM-related business.

More information on Base 11 is available at