(Wired) In the early morning of April 21, 10 students from the University of Southern California’s Rocket Propulsion Lab piled into the back of a pickup truck with a 13-foot rocket wedged between them and drove down a dusty dirt road to a launchpad near Spaceport America, in southern New Mexico. When they arrived, their teammates helped them lift the 300-pound rocket onto a launch rail. Dennis Smalling, the rocket lab’s chief engineer, began the countdown at 7:30 am. When he reached zero, Traveler IV shot up off its launchpad, exhaust and flames pouring from its tail.
The USC team is one of several groups of college students across the United States and Europe that have been racing to send a rocket above the Ka´rma´n line, the imaginary boundary that separates Earth’s atmosphere and space. For most of the history of spaceflight, sending a rocket to space required mobilizing resources on a national scale. The V-2 rocket, which was the first to reach space in 1942, took well over a decade to develop and cost the Nazis a fortune. In the eight decades since, dozens of other countries—and a handful of billionaires—have produced their own rockets capable of suborbital flight. But several student teams, including some from the top aerospace universities in the US (Princeton, MIT, UC Berkeley, Boston University), set out to show that they could do it too.