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23 rockets took to the sky during Carthage’s 14th annual First Nations Launch (FNL) on April 28-29.

14th Annual First Nations Launch welcome ceremony. The NASA-sponsored program offers tribal colleges and student members of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) the opportunity to participate in high-powered rocketry with national leaders in aerospace engineering.

FNL is the largest high-powered rocket competition in the country for Native American college students, designed as a ‘first step’ experience for students interested in rocketry, engineering, and space science.

Carthage students Iris Toney ’25 (Chocktaw, team lead), Alexander Kovalenko ’25, Kevin Totts ’25 and Nico Kilbourne ’25, along with faculty advisor Julie Dahlstrom, participated in this year’s Gateway Challenge. Teams designed and constructed a dual-deploy high-power rocket from a list of possible kit combinations.

From left to right: Alexander Kovalenko ?25, Nico Kilbourne ?25, Kevin Totts ?25, and Iris Toney ... From left to right: Alexander Kovalenko ’25, Nico Kilbourne ’25, Kevin Totts ’25, and Iris Toney ’25.

“I was excited about this competition as a way to interact with the wider community of Native Americans while learning more about engineering and science through the process of building and presenting our high-power rocket,” said Iris Toney ’25. “I was also excited for the opportunity to meet and interact with professionals in the fields that interest me most, such as representatives from NASA, Blue Origin, and Sierra Space.”

Other competitions included the Moon Challenge, in which teams design, test, and fabricate some structural design components of a lightweight rocket, and the Mars Engineering Challenge, in which teams create the entire rocket from raw materials.

All the competitors, a total of 21 teams from 11 states and one Canadian province, converged for a weekend of workshops and presentations at Carthage. The rocket showcase took place at the Richard Bong State Recreation Area in Kansasville, Wisconsin.

Iris Toney ?25 (left) and Kevin Totts ?25 (right) building their rocket for the First Nations Lau... Student teams from as far afield as the University Of Hawai’i at Mānoa and MIT showcased their competition rockets and presented their designs to NASA representatives and industry experts. Judges included James Wood from Kennedy Space Center, Joseph Connolly from the Glenn Research Center, Orson John from the Goddard Space Flight Center, and Aaron Yazzie and Lauren Denson from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Alumni of the FNL program, who are now employed at companies such as Blue Origin, the Boeing Company, and Raytheon Technologies, also joined the event as industry experts.

The competition culminated with a banquet featuring keynote speaker Captain Haida StarEagle (U.S. Space Force) and award presentations.

This was the first year a Carthage team participated in the FNL program. Students and faculty are excited to expand the team for next year and to create more opportunities for Native Americans at the College. “Our next task is to fully establish and maintain a vibrant AISES chapter at Carthage,” said Prof. Dahlstrom. “We are in the early stages now, but there is more work to be done.”

Learn more about the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium

Learn about Carthage’s space sciences program