Indigenous

Indigenous engineering students ready for launch in NASA rocket competition

A group of Indigenous engineering students from Queen's University are the only team from Canada in a U.S. NASA-sponsored rocket launch competition for Indigenous students.

Queen's University team participates in U.S.-based contest for Indigenous students

Jeff McCaw, Maranda Cherry and Eric Birchall and the rest of their team at Queens University have created a rocket for a U.S. competition for Indigenous students with no prior experience working with high-powered rockets. (Melanie Howard/Queens University)

A group of Indigenous engineering students from Queen's University are the only team from Canada in a U.S. NASA-sponsored rocket launch competition for Indigenous students.

"It's been an extremely great opportunity because all of us have been stuck inside our houses during the pandemic and we've been isolated," said Maranda Cherry, who is Métis from Vancouver.

"As an engineering student, you'd like to be able to build something on top of just designing it."

Cherry is in her third year of an engineering physics program at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

The NASA Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium's First Nations Launch National High-Power Rocket Competition is a student challenge that provides First Nations students in the U.S. an opportunity to design, build and fly rockets.

"I've always been a bit of a space nerd, and I've always enjoyed staying up to date on rockets and . . .  launches by NASA and SpaceX," said Cherry.

Cherry is leading the First Nations Launch competition team, which consists of six Indigenous students and one Black student from the National Society for Black Engineers.

Their rocket's name Kanatakon'ha 2.0 means "sparrow" in the Mohawk language. It was named by the mother of the university's Aboriginal Access to Engineering director Melanie Howard.

Howard, who is Mohawk from Kanesatake, Que., is the team's advisor and helped get them into the contest.

While teams in the U.S. are funded by the competition to participate, the Queen's team signed an agreement where they would fundraise on their own and wouldn't be eligible for any of the cash prizes that are available to winners.

"The opportunity to do something with NASA is pretty amazing. So we kind of have accepted that," said Howard. 

"We're hoping if more and more Canadian teams get interested in this, it could be something that NASA collaborates with the Canadian Space Agency on, to facilitate Canadian participation in the competition. But I can't speak for the NASA competition. That's just my grand idea on bringing it to more Indigenous students in Canada." 

Rocket to launch in California

The Queen's team had entered the competition for the first time last year but had to abort their project because of COVID-19. 

This year, the students created their rocket while navigating Ontario's pandemic restrictions and studying for final exams and assignments.

"It's been so much effort put into it through the reports and then the build phase during exams that just seeing it actually launch properly and then come back down . . . would be really satisfying to see," said third-year electrical engineering student Jeff McCaw, who is Métis from Peterborough, Ont.

The team spent the last month and a half building the about 2.4-metre, 8.5-kilogram rocket.

The Kanatakon'ha 2.0 rocket is scheduled to be launched May 15 with the help of University of California, Davis students. It won the competition's esthetic award and features various flags of the team's contributors. (Melanie Howard/Queens University)

Eric Birchall, who is Ulkatcho from Anahim Lake, B.C., said participating in the project was a chance to connect with other Indigenous engineers.

"It's definitely been cool to meet a lot of rocket engineers and rocket scientists through the process because throughout the competition . . . we got feedback directly from engineers at NASA," said Birchall.

"It's been really cool to meet Indigenous engineers and an Indigenous rocket scientist through the process as well and get to expand the network through that."

The group has won team challenges including best esthetic, best exterior design, which was voted on by other teams, and written reports awards for best reports submitted to the jury. 

There is no in-person competition this year due to the pandemic and each team needs to arrange their own rocket launch. Since there are no approved sites in Ontario to launch rockets of that calibre, and the team can't travel due to restrictions, they have partnered with the University of California, Davis where another team will launch it for them.

The launch is scheduled to take place May 15 and the competition concludes June 1.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said it was illegal to launch rockets of that calibre in Canada. In fact, it is not possible for the rocket to be launched in Ontario and the team cannot travel due to restrictions.
    May 04, 2021 12:44 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1

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