Base 11 Space Challenge offers $1 million prize

The Base 11 Space Challenge is presenting the task for a student-led university team to design, build, and launch a liquid-propelled, single-stage rocket to an altitude of 100 kilometers by Dec. 30, 2021.

A team of Purdue students will attempt to build a rocket that can reach space — and win a $1 million prize.

The Base 11 Space Challenge is presenting the task for a student-led university team to design, build and launch a liquid-propelled, single-stage rocket to an altitude of 100 kilometers by Dec. 30, 2021.

Purdue was approached to participate in the competition, based on the reputation built by its Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) chapter. The work accomplished on its “Boomie Zoomie” rocket drew attention: They built the first liquid-liquid rocket designed entirely by Purdue students for a competition with a goal of reaching 45,000 feet.

But that feat is not quite like reaching the Karman line, at the edge of space, 328,000-plus feet away. That’s exactly what Base 11 is spurring teams to do, using prizes over the course of a three-phase challenge to mark milestone achievements in the process, including design of the rocket, static testing of the engine, and smaller pop-up innovation challenges.

Few doubt how ambitious the competition’s goal is: Only one student team is known to have built a rocket that has reached the Karman line. But that stiff task only has sharpened the resolve for the group of 60-plus Purdue students who are involved in the estimated $600,000 project.

“There’s tremendous enthusiasm for it,” said Scott Meyer, the managing director at Maurice J. Zucrow Laboratories who hosted one of three safety sessions in October 2018 for teams interested in participating in the competition.

Even knowing the likelihood of securing $1 million. 

Early concepts for the rocket

“It’s extremely ambitious. Whether we hit the altitude goal or not, the opportunity to get hands-on learning experience to test these high-pressure, high-flow systems is incredibly valuable,” said former SEDS president Chris Nilsen, now a design, build, test propulsion engineer and the student interface on the project. “Boomie Zoomie really did help, at least with the sizing and understanding what needs to be done for this one. We may not have the highest-flying rocket; we’re going to have the best-performing engine, though.” 

Stephen Heister, the Raisbeck Engineering Distinguished Professor for Engineering and Technology Integration, is the principal investigator on the project and is teaching a senior capstone design course this fall. The course will aim toward designing the Base 11 rocket, with industry mentors in each specific area of design — propulsion (engine, igniter), avionics, controls, and feed systems — to offer additional insight and guidance to students. The Purdue Space Program group, formerly SEDS, would be responsible for structures, recovery, ground support, and testing support.

Li Qiao, an associate professor in AAE; Scott Sudhoff, the Michael and Katherine Birck Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; James Goppert, a visiting assistant professor in AAE; Meyer; and Mark Grubelich, a distinguished member of the technical staff at Sandia National Labs, will be advisors on the project.

Students in Professor Stephen Heister's AAE450 class are working on the Base 11 Space Challenge project, designing, building and ultimately launching a liquid-propelled rocket.

“We think it is important for Purdue to support this competition due to our reputation in propulsion and the great learning opportunities it provides our students,” Heister said.

The competition has built-in deadlines to keep the teams’ progress moving. The first was in March 2019, a Phase 1 preliminary design deadline. The next is March 2020 for Phase 2, the critical design deadline. Heister’s AAE450 class this semester will get through critical design review, and the subsequent courses will focus on refining designs, developing testing plans, executing tests, sourcing components, making components, planning and preparing for launch activities, assembling the rocket and, ultimately, launching.

The first launch window is May 2020, according to Base 11, but it’s unlikely many teams will be ready by that date, Meyer said.

But the entire process, even though lofty deadlines, are in line with Base 11’s goal. It’s a non-profit workforce and entrepreneur development company with a mission to “dramatically increase STEM talent in the U.S. with greater representation and inclusion of women and minorities,” according to its website. Part of the competition includes an outreach component, and Purdue’s team anticipates collaborating with a high school on potential payload, among other things.