UC Berkeley student organization aims to be 1st college team to send rocket into space

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A group of UC Berkeley students is in a race to be the first college team to send a rocket into space and has invited fellow collegiate teams around the world to join it in the competition to reach new heights.

The student organization, Space Enterprise at Berkeley, or SEB, was founded two years ago by current Chief Business Development Officer Paul Shin, Chief Technical Officer Eric Pillai and Chief Operations Officer Victor Garza. According to Shin, SEB’s goal from the beginning was to find a way to boost collegiate engagement with space activity. In fall 2017, the central project became Project Karman, the mission to become the first college team to send a rocket into outer space.

“I don’t want to sound grandiose, but (making the announcement) was very much a Kennedy ‘we choose to go to the moon,’ type of thing,” Pillai said.

SEB’s rocket, EUREKA-1, is a liquid rocket, meaning it uses liquid oxygen and propane as propellants, according to Pillai. The rocket will be designed to reach 135 kilometers, 35 kilometers past the Karman Line, which is considered to be the boundary to outer space. The organization plans to test the rocket and collect data April 7.

The reactions the team received after its announcement were mixed, according to Pillai.

“Georgia Tech’s Yellow Jacket Space Program was very receptive,” Pillai said. “(USC) had an extraordinarily negative reaction to our announcement. … They are inclined to provide more criticism than cooperation.”

USC’s Rocket Propulsion Laboratory declined to participate in Project Karman because, according to its Chief Operations Officer Haley Karow, the project is not new, and SEB is sending a false message that it is the first student team to explore space rocketry. USC’s lab holds the current record for the highest collegiate rocket launch at 44 kilometers.

“We laid the groundwork for any group to come after us,” Karow said. “When (SEB) announced it … they said that nothing like this has happened before. They discredited 15 years of hard work that we’ve put in.”

Karow added that it sends a negative message that Berkeley’s other rocketry team, CalSTAR, has declined to work with SEB. Garza and Adam Huth, outreach lead of CalSTAR, however, cite different reasons for the organizations’ lack of collaboration.

In an email, Huth said CalSTAR decided not to participate in Project Karman because the clubs focus on slightly different areas of aerospace. According to Huth, CalSTAR is more focused on research, competitions, member development and educational outreach, which differs from SEB’s objectives.

Financial backing has also been a struggle for SEB. Though it has received support from crowdfunding, grants and corporate sponsorships, according to Shin, SEB has not received a “single penny from the university.”

“We’ve asked and been denied for everything. You bet that if the rocket works, they’re going to hang it up in the alumni hall and use it for the next 50 years,” Shin said. “I really believe … that doing something this grand is really big and important and should be supported by the university.”

Pillai views SEB’s work as important innovation. He said the only organizations that have succeeded at sending rockets to space thus far have been nation-states and corporations funded by nation-states and that SEB’s work will open a new field of innovation to more people, including undergraduate students.

“You don’t have to be an electrical engineer to write an iPhone app, and you don’t have to be an old chemist to think about medical innovation,” Shin said. “So why do you have to have a Ph.D. to go into rocket science?”

Contact Sri Medicherla at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sri_medicherla.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly omitted Victor Garza as a co-founder of Space Enterprise at Berkeley.

Because of misinformation from a source, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that MIT was receptive to Space Enterprise at Berkeley’s announcement.