Texas Rocket Engineering Lab is pushing the boundaries of collegiate rocketry

Jhanvi Girish and Nida Virabalin

Editor’s note: This column was submitted by a member of the UT community.

Space fascinates us today in the same ways that it has throughout history. Granted, today’s space  landscape would be unrecognizable to early stargazers. Space shuttles, space stations, rovers and  satellites have allowed us to explore the furthest reaches of the universe with a depth previously  impossible. Within the last two decades, the private space industry has grown into a burgeoning force, renewing competition in a gamut of space technologies and inspiring a generation toward research and careers in aerospace. 

Amidst this new space era, Texas has emerged as a booming hub, host to industry giants such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Firefly Aerospace. Recent legislation proposing the funding and creation of the Texas Space Commission highlights the state’s preeminence in this industry. As such, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the University’s own Texas Rocket Engineering Lab is at the forefront of collegiate rocketry.  

TREL is an interdisciplinary collegiate research lab that was founded in 2018 with the aim of incubating the next generation of aerospace professionals. From the beginning, the lab has been student-led. Over 200 UT students from all engineering fields and several non-science domains work across 18 engineering teams and four business teams to design, test, market and build industry relationships. 

TREL is a collaboration between Firefly Academy and UT’s Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics department intended to compete in the Base 11 Space Challenge. This challenge offered a $1 million prize to the first university team that successfully launched a liquid-propelled, single-stage rocket to the Karman Line. What started as a group of 17 students has since grown into a lab of over 200 UT students. 

The rocket we are developing, Halcyon, stands over 30 feet tall and is powered by Havoc — the second iteration of the most advanced collegiate rocket engine. It contains three composite overwrapped pressure vessel tanks connected by carbon fiber skirts and a thrust vector control control system. Every component of the rocket, including the above mentioned parts, is designed and tested by students guided by mentorship from professionals at companies like Firefly Aerospace and Lockheed Martin. 

This unique technical work environment provides our members invaluable hands-on experience in the modern aerospace industry. The opportunity to hone our passion for space, regardless of our majors, is why TREL has continued to push toward our launch goals even though the challenge that started our lab has since been canceled due to the pandemic. Even after the Halcyon project is completed, we aim to further the development of the next generation of aerospace thinkers and professionals.

In addition to being a hub for technical experience building, TREL is also a social impact organization. The lab’s student-led outreach and diversity, equity and inclusion teams aim to expand access to the aerospace industry, which has historically underrepresented several communities. They actively participate in events that promote STEM education and organize training and speaker events to increase awareness within the lab and community. 

The Texas Rocket Engineering Lab is preparing students for the new space era with hands-on experience building and launching Halcyon. 

Girish is an electrical and computer engineering senior from Round Rock, Texas. Virabalin is a civil engineering and anthropology senior from Sugar Land, Texas.