The Next "Next Generation"
A rocket leaves a launch pad as a man watches

A rocket, built by middle school students, soars into the sky during the Space Cowboys' Middle School Launch Challenge. Image Credit: Keith Koenig

Thanks to a group of students at Mississippi State University, rocket science is the gift that keeps on giving.

Each year, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Ala., organizes the University Student Launch Initiative event. Like many NASA education projects, USLI supports the agency's goal of strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce.

NASA is currently in the early stages of a new phase of space exploration that will see astronauts returning to the moon by 2020 and then continue farther through the solar system.

For that ambitious exploration to be sustained, future generations of scientists and engineers will have to be ready to receive the torch from NASA's current workforce. USLI is one of many ways that NASA is working to inspire and prepare the students who will become the rocket scientists who design vehicles that reach distant worlds.

Among those students are members of the Space Cowboys rocketry team at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss. Through collaboration with the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, the Space Cowboys team has participated in the USLI project.

Just as NASA uses the USLI event to prepare the next generation of the agency's workforce, the Space Cowboys are using it as an opportunity to engage and inspire the students who will carry out missions of exploration even further in the future. As part of the USLI project, teams are required to plan an educational outreach project for younger students. While the Space Cowboys team did not fly a rocket in the 2008 USLI event, it did inspire younger students through a USLI-based outreach project.

As their outreach effort, the Space Cowboys chose to give middle school students an opportunity similar to the one NASA provides university teams. The Mississippi State students organized the Middle School Launch Challenge, through which student teams compete for a $1,000 grand prize at a launch event held in April at the university.

Through the Middle School Launch Challenge, area teams designed, built, tested and flew rockets carrying scientific payloads to an altitude of 800 feet. The teams also had to write two papers about their work as they prepared their rockets.

NASA's USLI challenges university students to design, build and fly reusable rockets with scientific payloads to one mile in altitude. The project engages students in scientific research and real-world engineering processes with NASA engineers. Before the spring launch event, rockets must undergo a series of reviews, conducted by panels of scientists and engineers from NASA and from NASA contactors and external partners. The teams then gather at Marshall Space Flight Center in April for the launch event. The corporate sponsor of USLI is ATK Launch Systems. Many teams receive support for their involvement in USLI through the Space Grant program. Implemented by NASA in 1989, the Space Grant program contributes to the nation's science enterprise by funding research, education and public service projects through a national network of 52 university-based consortia.

Students involved in USLI today could have the opportunity to make major contributions to the vehicles, facilities and equipment for a human outpost on the moon in years to come. And as NASA's journey of exploration continues, the agency may well see important contributions made by former students inspired by students inspired by USLI -- the next "next generation" of explorers.

Related Resources
University Student Launch Initiative   →
National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program   →
NASA Exploration
NASA Education Web Site   →

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services