Base 11 Space Challenge succumbs to pandemic – questions linger

Space Concordia hot fire engine test. Credit: Space Concordia.

The million-dollar Base 11 Space Challenge is over. It did however reveal the immense skill and dedication of Canada’s student rocketry teams. But questions still linger over how the Challenge ended, why there was no winner, and what caused Base 11’s public silence about its end.

For nearly a month SpaceQ has been trying to get answers as to what happened to the Base 11 Space Challenge. The Challenge had a December 31, 2021 deadline. We did speak to one of the leading contenders, Space Concordia, and to Adam Trumpour, a mentor to many student rocketry teams and who provided safety training for the Space Challenge. We repeatedly tried to call and email Base 11 with only one acknowledgement of an email. No one from the Base 11 management team was willing to talk to us.

An ambitious student challenge and Canadian student successes

The Base 11 Space Challenge was a competition which asked student groups to build and launch a liquid-propelled, single-stage rocket to the Karman Line (100 km) by December 31st, 2021. This is far beyond what you’d normally expect to see from student rocketry groups, and it came with a million-dollar prize for the school that achieved it. Base 11, for their part, is focused on helping people from marginalized communities get into STEM. With the tremendous growth of jobs in the space sector over the past five to ten years, space has become an important part of that goal.

(SpaceQ has been following the Challenge for a while now; beginning with editor Marc Boucher’s original piece in 2018, continuing to Elizabeth Howell’s article in June about Concordia’s test firing.)

Canada represented itself well in the early competition. At the Phase 1 Preliminary Design Review (PDR), both Space Concordia and UBC received plaudits for their rocket-design work. Space Concordia got the second place prize (including $15,000 in reward money), after the first-place University of Michigan’s MASA team, while UBC received an Honourable Mention award. Space Concordia received an additional $2,500 from Dassault Systèmes. Both would be going forward as two of the 11 teams to enter Phase 2, the Critical Design Review.

COVID-19 puts strain on the competition

But in 2020, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation changed drastically.

As Howell pointed out in her article on Space Concordia, the COVID-19 pandemic had a particularly harsh effect on these student clubs. Even where the universities remained open — and Space Concordia did not — the students still needed to take care in their labs. While the members of the five remaining clubs did whatever they could to keep construction going, they ran up against the limits of what you can do without in-person collaboration. Howell quoted Space Concordia rocketry lead Oleg Khalimonov saying that with the closure of Concordia University, their club had “decided to move in together over the summer, and then lived in a house where we just worked on the rocket, 24-7.”  

Still, in the winter and then spring of 2021, the clubs continued to work to make progress — and, again, the Canadians led the race. By the end of Phase 2, despite the challenges of COVID and their comparative lack of resources, the Canadian teams “dominated” the Critical Design Review. Space Concordia moved up from 2nd to 1st place, taking the lead over the University of Michigan’s MASA team, and UBC Rocket moved up from its “honorable mention” position to third place overall. Launch Canada’s Adam Trumpour, a member of the competition’s Safety Council and long-time ally to Canadian student rocketry clubs, told SpaceQ that it was an “amazing showing,” and that “short of putting a student in orbit, it’s hard to think of a more impressive accomplishment than what they’re working towards!”

But more signs appeared over the months that things were strained. 

The May launch window was canceled, with the competition’s only remaining launch window being in December. The Flight Readiness Review (FRR) and phase 3 deadlines were moved up to account for the enormous backlog that Spaceport America and White Sands were facing due to COVID. And while Space Concordia continued to push forward, culminating in a successful rocket engine hot fire test, other clubs struggled, with MASA experiencing a “testing anomaly” that caused a “loud boom” and started a small fire. The fire was in a contained space, and the University was open and transparent about the situation. It was still a good reminder of how ambitious and difficult the project was even without the pandemic.

All this was reflected in a post on HeroX’s Base11 challenge forum by Senior Technical Advisor Andrew Berger on April 7, 2021, using the screen name “ESRA VP,” regarding the Phase 3 launch readiness templates and the FAA waiver applications. Though it predates Howell’s article, it seems to be the last post in the HeroX forum related to the Space Challenge, and one of Base 11’s last official (or even semi-official) public communications about the Challenge:

Flight Readiness Reviews (FRR) and Phase 3 documents are on hold until the teams can show successful completion of motor testing. That means a successful full thrust, full duration hotfire with data. This data will be needed to have accurate 6DOF dispersion analysis for the FAA and White Sands reviews.

I want to be very clear. Motor testing should have been completed before the submission of the Static Hotfire reports. The Phase 2 Documents were your Critical Design Review, (meaning FINAL production version). So to say that all of the teams have been severely affected by COVID is a terrible understatement. And every teams has a significant amount of motor testing to complete before they can proceed to Phase 3.

The Base11 Safety Council will not accelerate or compress the critically important FRR Safety process. The deadline for starting this process is quickly approaching.

Andrew Berger, Senior Technical Advisor

Berger did eventually make the Flight Readiness Review forms available. In Howell’s article and in the test firing video, it also appeared that Space Concordia also achieved the required full thrust, full duration hotfire with data that was required, and was planning on applying for approval from the FAA, White Sands, and Spaceport America. Clearly though, there were issues with the competition. 

No updates from Base 11

After those two messages from Berger, all public information on the Challenge ceased.

There were no further public updates from Base 11 on the Space Challenge, nor were there any postings or discussions on the HeroX forum related to the Challenge. Base 11’s Twitter and Facebook accounts had stopped mentioning the Challenge entirely — having moved on to primarily discussing cryptocurrency and blockchain. “Official spokesperson” and board member Leland Melvin, a former NASA astronaut, also stopped mentioning the Space Challenge on any of his own social media accounts.

In a recent conversation with SpaceQ, Khalimonov said that they also weren’t contacted. They’d already been surprised and disturbed that the FRR deadlines seemed to have been moved to May with little notice. They also felt that Concordia and the other Canadian teams had already received comparatively little help from Base 11 throughout the competition, especially compared to well-resourced teams like the University of Texas or the University of Michigan. Even so, they believed they were “well poised to take the flag,” having already “qualified up to full thrust and full burn time.” 

They said as much to Base 11. No response. They tried to get answers, tried to reach out, but heard nothing for months.

The situation got stranger, however, in September of 2021, when HeroX Vice President of Customer Success Kyla Jeffrey posted the final update on the Challenge, saying only that people should “tune into the the virtual Next Frontier Conference & EXPO on October 6th to hear about how far the challenge has come and what to expect next.”  Presumably, there was to be a big announcement on the million-dollar competition at the virtual conference. 

There’s no publicly available record of what was announced, though. There is no video of the conference, no press release from Base 11, nor any publicly accessible comment from any of its organizational leaders or representatives.

To any uninvolved observer, it would appear that the challenge was unceremoniously canceled. This is all the more shocking from a Canadian perspective, considering how Canadian teams had excelled. Of any of the competitors in the entire Challenge, it was Canada’s own Space Concordia that seemed to be the best bet for winning the prize. 

The Challenge’s quiet end…

So what happened? 

To learn more, we asked Adam Trumpour, who wrote to SpaceQ recently about the challenge, and also had a follow-up conversation by phone. We also asked Khalimonov about Space Concordia’s experience. 

Trumpour began by admitting what everybody would have suspected: no team could have fulfilled the Challenge due to the pandemic, even Space Concordia, unless Base 11 was willing to accept a delay.

After reiterating that the December launch window was the only one left before the challenge’s end, he said that there were additional complications that made the Challenge unwieldy. Spaceport America was going to be hosting the launches, but due to the size of a rocket needed to reach the Karman Line, any launch at Spaceport America would necessarily involve the neighbouring White Sands Missile Range and involve (as stated earlier) a full flight readiness review. FFRs are, in his words “costly and time consuming,” which is a tall order for student clubs even without a pandemic, but the pandemic also meant that White Sands had “a long backlog of government and private customers” that needed to be handled before the student FFRs could be evaluated. 

That’s why the FRRs were “moved up,” though Adam contends that that was a misunderstanding of the situation by the student clubs. They needed to have a vehicle ready to pass an FFR by early summer to meet their December launch window. 

None of the teams made it in time. Concordia came closest, though, and Trumpour acknowledged that “they were the only team in the competition to successfully demonstrate full thrust,” though that they’d have had a lot more work ahead of them to reach a full-duration burn. Trumpour was also proud to say that “they also set the record for the largest rocket motor of any time ever built by students and the largest student built liquid rocket motor ever tested by a factor of about 4.” It was, in Trumpour’s opinion, “an absolutely stunning accomplishment … but unfortunately was too late for a December launch to be feasible.” 

Khalimonov maintains that their team could have won given more time for the approvals, though he accepts that there were limitations due to the backlog at White Sands and at Spaceport America. He also said that it would have supported Base 11’s goal of encouraging students from marginalized communities to get involved in STEM. “Half of our team are women and visible minorities,” he said, and at least one member of the team came from the Black communities that Base 11 is focused on assisting. 

But it seemed like Base 11 wasn’t interested. His team attended the virtual conference, yet despite their amazing progress and achievements, Base 11 hadn’t even mentioned Space Concordia by name. They repeatedly praised other schools like Purdue, but didn’t even acknowledge the Canadian contest leaders. It reinforced a perception by Canadian participants, as told to SpaceQ, that the American organization — and its mysterious American prize donor — would only accept American winners.

Whatever the reason or justification, it’s over. As Base 11’s anonymous prize donor was unwilling to extend the competition deadlines any further, Trumpour said that “the teams were notified that with nobody in a position to meet the December launch window, the competition would be winding down.”

…and the competition’s quiet rebirth 

Still, it’s not entirely over. Turning back to the mysterious announcement from the October virtual conference, Trumpour explained what was actually happening. According to him, Base 11 said that “while the Base 11 Space Challenge in its original form was ending, the prize money would actually still be available for the first team to successfully fly their rocket to the Karman line, in more of an X Prize style competition.” This information included specific details has not been made public which raises yet more questions.

Placing the onus on teams to make their own launch arrangements would be significantly more difficult Trumpour said, as teams would “have to make their own arrangements to obtain a launch site and any needed authorizations to fly.” 

Space Concordia is still game, Trumpour said. He said that “Concordia is working towards launching in Canada” which would “not only set a world record [but] would also have accomplished the first launch to space from Canadian soil since 1998.” When asked for specifics, he said that they are planning to launch from the Churchill Rocket Research Range, or “Fort Churchill.” Designated a historic site in 1988, it had previously been used by the Black Brant program, the US Army, by NRC, and (briefly) as “SpacePort Canada” in the mid-1990s.

Khalimonov confirmed their intentions to continue. Even without Base 11’s support, they still plan to launch. Khalimonov appreciated their early assistance, but said “a bird’s got to leave the nest sometime.” He said that they’re working with Transport Canada to clear the flight. He also said that the locals are very supportive of the project bringing back their rich heritage of Canadian rocketry. However, resurrecting a long-dormant and remote launch site brings its owns difficult challenges and costs. It’s a daunting task for any organization, let alone a group of university students.

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Update: We made a slight revision to clarify a comment by Adam Trumpour regarding the effect of the pandemic. We added “due to the pandemic” in this sentence: Trumpour began by admitting what everybody would have suspected: no team could have fulfilled the Challenge due to the pandemic, even Space Concordia, unless Base 11 was willing to accept a delay.

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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