Rocket Team Blasts Off

School of Engineering's Rocket Team readies for Spaceport America Cup

The UM Rocket Team celebrates a friendly rivalry with Mississippi State’s Space Cowboys at a joint launch day in Starkville. Submitted photo

The University of Mississippi School of Engineering’s Rocket Team is busy preparing for the Spaceport America Cup competition to be held in New Mexico in 2022. The team built rockets last winter, held a launch day with Mississippi State’s team in the spring and is using the summer to formalize the structure of the organization.

Our Rocket Team – and teams at other universities – are part of NASA’s Space Grant program. NASA is keen to give students hands-on experience in the build, test and launch activities used by the agency and industry engineers. The experience also gives students the chance to practice teamwork and networking skills.

Rocket Team president Maren McSparin said she’s excited about the opportunity.

“I’m a chemical engineering student so it’s great to be hands-on with a project,” she said.

The team has 15 members representing multiple engineering departments, along with advisers Darin Van Pelt, director of engineering engagement, and Stephen Perry, R&D engineer for UM’s National Center for Physical Acoustics. Van Pelt brings his industry experience in the field from his previous roles with SpaceX and ABL Space Systems.

Maren McSparin, incoming Rocket Team president and UM chemical engineering sophomore, is setting the course for the 2022 competition in New Mexico. Submitted photo

Getting started

Over winter break, each student built a small rocket with an Estes kit. Using the Arduino platform, they figured out a way to control a camera and sensors on the rocket. Once back on campus, the team members braved weather in the mid-teens to get their first taste of launching and enjoy the smell of rocket propellant.

“These 8-inch-long Estes Rockets are the ideal introduction to working with rockets,” Van Pelt said. “They fundamentally operate just like the rockets you see from Boeing and SpaceX – you have to be aware of manufacturing and safety processes all the way through launch.”

Taking aim with the Mississippi State Space Cowboys

In March 2021, the Rocket Team traveled to Starkville to launch alongside members of the MSU rocket team, the Space Cowboys. Our team delivered nine perfect launches and toured the Space Cowboys’ home within the Patterson Engineering Labs.

“This was a great opportunity for our team to see something they built actually fly,” Van Pelt said. “They learned about taking a methodical approach and working together as a team to ensure successful and safe launches.”

Engineering students Emily Grace Dusin, Maren McSparin and Ronnie Cunitz jump for joy at the Rocket Team’s successful launches this past spring. Submitted photo

The day was more than a way to develop camaraderie and friendly rivalry with the Space Cowboys team. For our seven team members and the advisers, these launches lead to Level 1 certification by the National Association of Rocketry. With this certification, the team can step up to more high-powered, competition-level rockets.

Organizing for success

The rocket team has been going since 2016. Now its members want to build on that experience and take a more structured approach to their projects. Like in real life, individual members will need to understand their own tasks and how they fit in with the wider project.

McSparin stressed that “it’s important that everyone knows what’s going on. This will help develop the leaders and push the team forward.”

The team is also looking forward to doing more outreach with K-12 students to introduce the basics of rocketry. The participants believe rockets are a great way to get kids excited about engineering … and about becoming future members of the Rocket Team.

Funding our rocket team

The Rocket Team’s efforts rely on funding from the NASA – Mississippi Space Grant Consortium, the School of Engineering and the Center for Manufacturing Excellence

Companies or individuals who would like to support the team through a gift or sponsorship should contact Darin Van Pelt ( or Greg Carter (