Cleared for Liftoff: Illinois Tech Rocketry Perseveres, Excels at International Competition



By Simon Morrow
Illinois Tech Rocketry

In its first year competing in the Spaceport America Cup, the largest intercollegiate rocket and engineering competition and conference, Illinois Tech Rocketry exceeded expectations.

Launching its rocket named Talon I, the team placed 18th out of 119 teams across all divisions, and 11th out of 67 teams in the 10,000-foot Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) category.

“Our team was told countless times that most first-year teams don’t even get to see their rocket launch, much less see a successful launch and top 20 finish,” says Liz Karagiannes (AE, M.Eng. MAE 4th Year), president of Illinois Tech Rocketry. 

“Spaceport attracts some of the most innovative and advanced teams in high-powered rocketry,” says Ethan Kuo (AE, M.Eng. MAE 4th Year), structures lead at Spaceport and Illinois Tech Rocketry’s incoming president. “The event serves as a knowledge hub, gathering a wealth of expertise from various participants. For Illinois Tech Rocketry, being able to tap into this extensive pool of knowledge is invaluable. We had the opportunity to engage with peers and observe their approaches, gaining insights, practices, and new ideas.” 

Leading up to the competition, Illinois Tech Rocketry cleared the many hurdles required to participate, submitting detailed design reports, being judged on a technical review, and conducting a test launch that almost knocked them out of the race when it ended with a crash landing.

“The crash destroyed most of the avionics bay, the entirety of the payload, and snapped the nose cone completely in half, leaving the team disheartened and exhausted,” says Kuo. 
Short on time and funds, the team worked tirelessly to identify what went wrong, update the design, and rebuild the rocket. 

Kuo says the issue turned out to be a “perfect combination of small events,” including a delayed response from a flight computer, an ejection well filled with a little more powder than usual, and the slight difference in atmospheric conditions at apogee, emphasizing just how delicate rocketry can be.

Despite this setback, the team was one of only a handful that were cleared to launch on the first day of Spaceport, and this time their successful launch allowed them to retrieve a fully reusable rocket.
“While technical prowess is undoubtedly crucial, what truly sets a team apart is its ability to channel and direct those skills effectively. This year, Illinois Tech Rocketry’s leadership did an excellent job of guiding and harnessing our talents in a meaningful way, contributing significantly to our ultimate success,” says Kuo.

“This is a massive accomplishment and impressive feat that this team has accomplished,” says Karagiannes. “We worked tirelessly all school year to put our best foot forward and to show the rocketry community what Illinois Tech is capable of!”

Karagiannes led Illinois Tech Rocketry’s team that also included Nathan Cook (CPE, M.S. EE 4th Year), Han Duong (MAE 3rd Year), Ty Garrison (AE 2nd Year), Alexander Guban (ME, M.Eng. MAE 5th Year), Damien Karpen (CPE 4th Year), Catherine Klemp (AE, M.Eng. MAE ’23), Kuo, Liam Palmatier (AE, M.Eng. MAE ’23), Austin Richardson (AE, M.Eng. MAE 4th Year), Sylwia Slimak (AE 4th Year), Matt Tobin (AE ’23), Christian Valois (ME, PHYS ’23), and Aimee Wucherer (AE 2nd Year).

Image: Large group of teams with their rockets at the Spaceport America Cup.