At the International Rocketry Challenge, an all-girls team soars

Team Japan takes the top prize in a contest to inspire students toward STEM careers

Team Japan’s squad took top honors in the International Rocketry Competition during the 2022 Farnborough International Airshow, marking the first-ever first-place finish for an all-female team since the competition began in 2015.

“This award is the first step toward my dream, and above all, being able to participate in this competition with my teammates is the most precious experience of my life,” said team member Kotoha Mukai, who aspires to work in space exploration.

The competition, sponsored by Raytheon Technologies, brings together teams from the United States, United Kingdom, France and Japan. It is part of the company’s effort to encourage young people to pursue careers in STEM-related fields.

“As we enter a new era of space exploration, activities like the rocketry challenge are important vehicles to inspire more students to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields so we can meet increasing demand for these skills and create a more diverse pipeline of talent,” said Sarah Minett, a judge of the competition and a managing director at Collins Aerospace, a Raytheon Technologies business.

“This award is the first step toward my dream.”

Kotoha Mukai | Team Japan | International Rocketry Challenge

Precision matters

What’s impressive about the competition is that students not only build functioning rockets, but that they design them to perform to highly specific standards. The contest rules require rockets to weigh about 1.4 pounds (650 grams), reach an altitude of 835 feet (254.5 meters), then release a parachute and return to Earth within 41 to 44 seconds. 

And here’s the kicker: they have to do all that without cracking the two eggs on board. 

“Anything above or below that altitude or outside that timeframe, the students get penalized points against their flight,” said John Hochheimer, president of the National Association of Rocketry. “So the students are designing something to optimize two different variables to very precise levels.”

The flight itself makes up 60 percent of a team’s score. The other 40 percent comes from their presentation.

A launchpad for STEM studies

Raytheon Technologies’ sponsorship of the International Rocketry Competition is an extension of its support for the U.S. competition, which is known as the American Rocketry Challenge and run by the Aerospace Industries Association.

The company also supports the AIA’s distribution of Title 1 grants, which benefit schools that have high percentages of low-income students.

Zoé Vuillermoz, captain of the team from France, dreams of working in the aeronautical industry.

“At first, I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but I have eye problems, so I thought I couldn’t do it,” she said. “Then one day I was told I could do it anyway. That boosted my confidence because, since I was a little girl, I’ve always been attending air shows with my mum.”

Hochheimer said he has seen interest in rocketry and this competition grow significantly in recent years with more – and younger – students. The number of teams competing in each country has risen, as have the number of test flights and the degree of precision and collaboration required.

“When we first started, rocketry was very new to a lot of the students and a lot of the schools,” Hochheimer said. “The students have gotten a lot better with the technology they use – things like 3D printing to print precise parts.”

“The other interesting phenomenon that's happening is these students like to work as teams, and we think it's very important for the workforce in their futures,” he continued.

While working as a team encourages the students to collaborate, it also allows them to focus on one part of rocketry they find interesting. For U.S. team member Rose Liu, that meant taking responsibility for the operation of the parachute.

“I love the design and engineering process more than anything,” she said, “so being able to have full control over one aspect of our design rocket, and being able to perfect and maximize that – that’s what I love the most.”

Mukai, of Team Japan, hopes this winning moment with her teammates encourages other girls interested in STEM.

“It is quite rare to have an all-girls team, especially in Japan – it is often seen as a kind of curiosity,” she said. “So I personally hope that having female teams will become more commonplace and accepted.” 

“I love the design and engineering process more than anything.”

Rose Liu | U.S. team | International Rocketry Challenge