Beatrice alum participates in nationwide, student project to launch rockets into space

Beatrice alum participates in nationwide, student project to launch rockets into space
Nathan Spilker prepares the rocket for launch in New Mexico. "Operation Space" launched one rocket on May 31, and another on June 1. Courtesy photo.

BEATRICE – Nathan Spilker is 19. He’ll be 20 on June 15.

He graduated from Beatrice High School two years ago, and just wrapped up his sophomore year at Princeton.

An aerospace engineering major, Spilker was one of 40 students involved in Operation Space.

Their mission? Design an unmanned rocket designed to fly 62 miles up to the Karman line – the imaginary border where space begins.

“It’s a barrier that’s internationally recognized as the boundary into space,” Spilker explained. “It’s not necessarily significant other than just a number to be there, just to define here and there, you know?

Operation Space began last summer. Joshua Farahzad, 19, from Duke University emailed rocket clubs at colleges all across the U.S. and Canada. Forty students responded, including Spilker, who came on board in February.

“It’s a very rare occurrence for a student group to attempt this,” Spilker said. “I don’t know of any rockets that were launched via students who worked across campuses. It’s just very hard.”

Operation Space is not the first student group to attempt this project. The University of Southern California sent their Traveler IV rocket across the Karman line in April – the first student-made rocket to pull off such a feat.

Operation Space’s rockets were built solely by undergrad students – no professors or engineering professionals helping. They were also funded through private donations and appeals.

“We did this on a shoestring budget,” Spilker said. “This was more like the real world, where we’re doing our own business, essentially.”

After hundreds of hours of video chats and phone calls, the team designed a 17-foot rocket. They launched two rockets from Spaceport America in New Mexico on May 30 and June 1.

The first rocket made it 100,000 feet – a third of the way to the Karman Line. The second one traveled 52,000 feet.

Operation Space wants to do another project. There’s no specific plan for what’s next, other than getting some rest. Despite their rockets not working the way they hoped, Spilker and the rest of the group will keep shooting for the stars.

“There’s nothing specific planned yet,” Spilker said. “We’re all still kind of recovering, but definitely we’ll have some cool ideas by the end of the summer.”

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