The Rocket Launchers at UTRGV soar high at international competition

The Rocket Launchers at UTRGV team placed second among U.S. competitors and seventh among all 44 international competitors, in the Experimental Sounding Rocketry Association’s 2016 Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition, held in Green River, Utah. Shown at the competition with their rocket are Rocket Launchers members Eliel Martinez, social media officer; Marco Pina, financial officer; Enrique Molina, propulsion lead; Felipe Gaitan, secretary officer; and Justin Osorio, team captain. At rear is Allen Owens, safety officer. (Courtesy Photo)

By Gail Fagan

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – SEPT. 26, 2016 – The Rocket Launchers at UTRGV, a student group at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, is off to a soaring start launching not only rockets, but also their careers in the aerospace industry.

At this summer’s Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC) hosted by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA), the UTRGV rocket placed seventh out of 44 competitors, besting the performance of rockets built by students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, University of California-Los Angeles, and other notable universities worldwide.

The rocket – which was required to travel upward at least 10,000 feet and undergo minimal damage upon landing – placed second among all U.S. competitors.

Alexandra Alaniz, 21, and Justin Osorio, 22, both senior UTRGV mechanical engineering majors, are co-founders of the student organization, which officially was recognized by the university in fall 2015, and helped build the rocket.

“Our rocket reached 10,633 feet,” Alaniz said. “We did way better than we expected, placing better than schools with well-known aeronautical programs, like Ohio State University.”

Osorio said he was glad it did not blow up, as several rocket launches did.

“That is called a catastrophic take-off, when it blows up; ours did what we wanted it to do,” Osorio said. “In design, there is a main goal for the design. For example, if you are trying to get to Mars, a rocket has to have a certain amount of strength to get there, but it can’t be too strong or it will collide into Mars. If you have too little, you won’t reach Mars.”

The UTRGV rocket, built this year from a kit and with a purchased motor and parts, was 7 feet, 8 inches long and 4 inches in diameter, and its solid fuel motor generated 1,297 average Newtons (SI units of force). The rocket was emblazoned with a wrap, provided by Sign Depot, of UTRGV’s colors of orange, green and blue.

The team also was judged on a poster presentation, their project’s design and construction, and the quality of their required documentation.

Alaniz and Osorio said their career adviser for the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences, Ricardo Ramirez, gave them the idea to start the rocket-oriented group to gain some hands-on experience in the field and leadership and communication skills, in order to become more competitive in obtaining internships.

Ramirez also became one of the group’s advisers. Its faculty adviser is Dr. Isaac Choutapalli, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

“It is hard to get an internship with so much competition,” Osorio said. “Through the club, we have conducted self-motivated research and gained engineering experience.”

Getting a late start before the competition, the student group launched small rockets around the campus to draw attention and members to their group. They also were challenged to raise funds to buy the different components they needed to build the rocket before the June competition.

“We used a lot of our own money to build the rocket and participate,” Alaniz said. “But you just have to believe in what you are doing.”

Osorio and five other members of Rocket Launchers traveled to the competition site in Green River, Utah, without the opportunity to test their rocket. Ascensions by rockets, drones and other aircraft higher than 2,000 feet must apply for a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration. To be granted a waiver, the requestor has to register a location with dimensions larger than one-quarter of the expected altitude (2,500 feet by 2,500 feet minimum) and free of tall trees, power lines, buildings, and dry brush and grass, Osorio said.

“We didn’t even get to test our rocket because we couldn’t find the appropriate land here and didn’t get a waiver in time,” he said.

Both Alaniz and Osorio hope to one day work for SpaceX, using the skills in various operations needed in rocketry that they have learned in their mechanical engineering program.

Alaniz said she was inspired by a female cousin who became an electrical engineer, and she has a long-time dream of pursuing a career in space exploration. She already has participated in a NASA internship in fall 2015.

Osorio said that, as a child, he liked building things but wanted to learn how to do it intelligently.

“I like having an idea and making it come to life,” said Osorio, an aspiring inventor with two inventions currently in development.

The Rocket Launchers already are looking to next year’s competition in June at White Sands, New Mexico, where they want to bring a rocket they build themselves and possibly compete in two categories – the basic, which is the one the team competed in this year, and the advanced, which requires the rocket to ascend to 30,000 feet or more.

The Rocket Launchers are also seeking more sponsors and members, particularly physics majors to help with building the rocket’s motors, and business majors, who can help with the organization’s finances.

See a video of the rocket’s creation & Follow its flight.

The Rocket Launchers at UTRGV will have their rocket on display outside the Engineering Building on the Edinburg Campus during HESTEC Community Day on Saturday, Oct. 8.


Founded in 2003, ESRA is a nonprofit organization that seeks to foster and promote engineering knowledge and experience in the field of rocketry. The organization is currently focused on the field of experimental sounding rocketry, which is defined as between experimental or research high-power rockets and sounding rockets capable of reaching space. The annual IREC is the world’s largest university rocket engineering competition.

Senior Writer / 956-665-7995
UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications 956-665-2742