AUSTIN (KXAN) – Star Wars here on Earth: two universities, a million-dollar prize and a race to space. Students with the University of Texas are building an advanced rocket as part of the Base-11 Space Challenge.

“(It) was just like a project that just like blew my mind. And I was like, this is this is awesome,” said Steven Ortega.

Ortega is the Director of Operations at the Texas Rocket Engineering Lab, also known as TREL. Formed to build the rocket as part of the challenge, the lab is fully staffed by more than 250 students. These aren’t graduate students either.

“Undergraduate students? 18, 19-year-old’s working on a rocket going to space? I mean, like, why wouldn’t they want to sign up for that?” said Mullika Pandit, Director of Tests and Launch Operations with TREL.

TREL is planning to launch their rocket in May 2023.

UT Students find some “space” to meet

Pandit first attended school from out of state during the pandemic. When she arrived on campus, she wanted to meet people. That’s when she found TREL.

“We’ve had so many students working on this for so long. And if we can, if this thing gets off the launch pad, I mean, that in itself is a huge deal.”

More than 250 students are members of the Texas Rocket Engineering Lab (Credit: TREL)

“We have freshmen all the way to seniors. We have different colleges, not just engineering. We have communications, we have psychology,” Ortega said.

Two classes are provided by the university to help the students. Both of which require students be U.S. citizens and over 18 years old. This is because of U.S. laws related to rockets.

A rocket to the edge of space

The Base-10 Space Challenge started in 2018. The objective is to build a rocket capable of reaching the Karmen Line. “That’s the internationally recognized boundary between atmosphere and space,” Pandit said.

The rocket isn’t the type of rocket you built as a kid. It is 30-feet tall, self-cooling and powered by liquid oxygen. “Our rocket is most similar to the NASA sounding rockets,” Ortega said.

“There’s like a lot of rules and regulations that come with launching something so big to space,” Pandit said. In fact, the only thing that separates the rocket from a missile is what it carries on-board.

“Our payload is part of a NASA mission. It’s going to collect UV data from the atmosphere.” The rocket will also carry a buoyancy experiment designed by the team.

But wait! There’s a twist in this space race

Director of Operations Steven Ortega accepted a check from Lockheed Martin in January (Credit: TREL)

Due to the pandemic, the Base-11 space challenge was canceled, but the money is still up for grabs. All the universities participating dropped out over the years, now only two remain: the University of Texas and a college in Canada.

“This is unprecedented, this is basically going to be the first time it’s ever been done,” Ortega said.

TREL has gotten some help in building the rocket. In January, Lockheed Martin provided a grant to the team. “In addition to that, they’re giving us support with our launch site,” Pandit said.

The team is scheduled to launch next May.