Firefly@UT: Reinventing Rocket Engineering Education

March 22, 2019

students in rocket lab photoLeon Vanstone is leading Firefly@UT's operations and is teaching the new course “Rocket Engineering Practicum” where students obtain formal instruction in rocket engineering. View more photos.

The University of Texas at Austin and Firefly Academy, a nonprofit organization run by Austin-based firm Firefly Aerospace, have partnered to establish Firefly@UT — a $1 million, multi-year program that, for the first time, will offer UT students the opportunity to design, develop, assemble and test an industrial-scale rocket capable of launching to the edge of space.

As the leader and facilitator of Firefly@UT, the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics in the Cockrell School of Engineering is one of only a few programs in the nation to offer a program like this. Unlike most university student-led rocket clubs, Firefly@UT is a university-run program led by UT faculty and staff and supported by mentors from Firefly who will work closely with students to ensure professional rocket engineering practices are followed.

Firefly@UT’s operations are led by Leon Vanstone, who serves as lab director and instructor for a new course “Rocket Engineering Practicum” where students obtain formal instruction in rocket engineering. The course currently has 40 students registered from five different engineering majors (aerospace, computational, electrical, computer and mechanical) and in the future, it will be opened to other majors such as physics and business. About 20 more students work in the lab on an extracurricular basis.

“Through this partnership with Firefly Aerospace, our students have a unique opportunity to learn industry standards for the design, test, fabrication and launch of a liquid fueled rocket capable of reaching space,” Vanstone said.

At a program launch event last December, the Cockrell School officially dedicated a 1,000-square-foot lab in the state-of-the-art Engineering Education and Research Center that will serve as the Firefly@UT headquarters. The newly named Texas Rocket Engineering Lab (TREL) will enable students to design components of the rocket on a local network of workstations.

“TREL is an extracurricular lab that seeks to develop capable and professional students who are well-equipped to meet the needs of NASA, new space, and commercial launch companies,” Vanstone said. “Ultimately, TREL facilitates a knowledge transfer between professional aerospace companies and UT Austin that allows our students to realize a class of rocket that very few academic institutions would be capable of producing.”

More advanced simulations will utilize supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, and assembly of the rocket components will take place in a dedicated 2,000-square-foot lab at UT Austin’s J.J. Pickle Research Campus, which will provide ample space to house the 30-foot-long vehicle.

The project will culminate with the 2021 Base 11 Space Challenge, a competition that tasks student teams with launching a liquid-propelled, single-stage rocket to an altitude of 100 kilometers by Dec. 30, 2021. Designed to encourage rocket engineering education and teach students about rocket safety and flight regulations, the competition boasts a $1 million prize that could be used to extend and enhance Firefly@UT in the years to come.

Firefly@UT is inspired by a renewed international focus on the commercial space industry. By combining mentorship with hands-on experiences in a safe and educational environment, projects like this can help develop the confidence and skills necessary for future jobs in this growing sector.

What Makes Our Rocket Engineering Program Different?

Firefly@UT stands apart from rocket programs at most universities, which tend to be student-run and have minimal university oversight. Our goal with Firefly@UT is to create a unique program that leverages our industry partner Firefly Aerospace to provide a formal education in rocket engineering. Our goal is to have our graduates leave the Forty Acres fully prepared to make an immediate impact in the growing NewSpace industry. Our new program is unique for many reasons:

  • Firefly@UT is a university-run educational program, not a student-run club.
  • Professionalism, safety, teamwork, diversity and inclusion are our key values.
  • To be most relevant to industry needs, our focus is on the design of industrial-scale liquid-fueled rockets.
  • The rocket lab is directed by a university staff member, whose role is to manage the program, mentor students and interface with Firefly engineers.
  • We offer a course called Rocket Engineering Practicum, which formalizes the process of rocket engineering design.
  • Engine testing will take place at Firefly Aerospace to ensure that the highest safety standards are met.
  • Firefly@UT is focused on developing rocket engineers, not just winning competitions.