BIRST Team Aims for World Record

Liftoff for Ball's Intern Program Means More Than Rockets

By Nicole Beale
At Ball we don’t build rockets. Instead, we build the spacecraft and the instruments that are launched from the rocket. And that’s where the fun begins for the large group of interns who join us each summer to get hands-on experience about what it means to work in an aerospace company and specifically what it means to design a rocket launch.

What is BIRST?

Upon arrival at Ball facilities in and near Boulder, Colo., interns are inducted into the Ball Intern Rocket Science Team (BIRST), which provides a valuable learning experience: a full concept-to-launch spacecraft program in just eight short weeks. To get that done, Ball interns team up with college students spending the summer in a similar intern program sponsored byUnited Launch Alliance’s (ULA).  ULA students build the rockets, and Ball students build the payloads launched from the rockets.

Ball interns will take part in designing and building 14 different payloads, in conjunction with various local high schools and academic programs that will ride aboard this year’s rocket. For several years, ULA has been building a new and improved rocket called Future Heavy. This rocket is expected to achieve records. With an overall length of 50 feet and a liftoff mass of 1,300 pounds and 6,500 pounds of initial thrust, Future Heavy will reach a target apogee of 10,000 feet!

A History of Partnership

Ball Aerospace and ULA have partnered on the intern rocket launch since 2008. The launch is a hands-on STEM experience for elementary school students through graduate school students as they work to build various payloads to be deployed while aboard the rocket.

“I’ve seen the photos and what they produced is sort of state-of-the-art circa 1930, about the time when reaching a mile high with a rocket was world-class performance,” a former BIRST program manager said. “It amazes me that college kids today are about where people like Oberth and Van Braun, and later Goddard and Parsons, were in the 20s and 30s of the last century.”

Ball Intern Rocket Science Team gathers to work on payloadsWhat took root on a small farm in the Colorado High Plains has grown to new heights. During the first launch in 2008, a 16-foot rocket was launched a mere 3,300 feet. In 2009, the rocket grew to 20 feet and Ball completed three multi-faceted payloads to deploy from the rocket. The payloads included an egg drop, environmental sensors, and 100 plastic, neon alien paratroopers. The rocket launched to 5,000 feet. It was 2010 when the largest rocket, the 25-foot “Future,” reached 9,000 feet.  It was the biggest rocket ever successfully launched in Colorado… so far.

BIRST gets "Heavy"

As the program matures, our team must adjust with it. Ball’s payload tube has been greatly increased this year to a size of 70 inches tall by 24 inches in diameter aboard the Future Heavy rocket. “The goal is to give the interns a platform and specify the weight requirements, power requirements, interface requirements etc.; from there the interns define the mission,” said Jaron Davis, Ball engineer and 2016 BIRST program manager.

With program changes and a surge of dozens of new interns arriving each year, the Ball mentor team begins working earlier every year. It’s purely a volunteer gig.  They navigate through idea generation, payload design, test, and flight phases on their own free time, after a full day of work.

“We have a fantastic mentor team that donates several hours per week to bring this vision to life,” Davis stated. “Every year we see interns that finish BIRST, come back to work on BIRST again and give back to the program.” Many Ball employees who become BIRST mentors were interns participating in the program just a few years before.

“BIRST complements the internship program well,” said former intern Monica Li. “Our mentors help us in the technical aspects of building a payload as well as giving us insight into working at Ball, as many were former interns. And now I can say I’m a rocket scientist!”

The BIRST program allows interns to work and build relationships with other Ball interns along with interns from other companies – valuable assets to growing their professional networks.

“As someone who wasn’t super technically minded my first year here, it was great to get to know people at Ball and the facilities a bit,” said Davis. “Interns learn and work with other interns who may become their peers in later years.”

BIRST and the intern rocket launch are bigger than ever in 2016. “We want BIRST to be the best experience it can be, and we’ve made several improvements to the program over the last few years,” Davis said. “We want to work with interns to build something truly meaningful and rewarding.”

Stars 'N' Stripes 2013BIRST Historical Highlights

Three rockets launched 17 payloads. The 25-foot-tall “Future” carried 14 payloads; “Stars ‘N’ Stripes,” a 20-foot-tall rocket, carried two payloads; and the “Genesis,” at 10 feet tall, deployed a single payload. Watch the 2015 launch highlights video.

Three rockets, including the 25-foot-tall Future, launched 18 payloads from students in Colorado, Ohio and Alabama.
Three rockets, including the 25-foot-tall Future, launched more than a dozen payloads up to 9,000 feet above the ground near Pueblo, Colo. The Stars ‘N’ Stripes intern rocket also launched at the Rocky Mountain Air Show, the first Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-sanctioned sport rocket launch at an air show.
Four rockets, including the 25-foot-tall Future, launched more than a dozen payloads up to 9,000 feet above the ground. Interns at ULA locations across the country began building the Future Heavy rocket, which is scheduled to launch in 2016 or 2017.


Several rockets, including the 25-foot-tall Future, launched more than a dozen payloads up to 9,000 feet above the ground.


The Future rocket made its debut as one of several rockets launched at the event. The Future – 25 feet tall and the largest rocket to launch from Colorado – has three N-class engines and reached up to 9,000 feet above ground.


Several rockets, the largest standing 20 feet tall with an N-class engine, launched to up to 5,000 feet above the ground.


A single rocket, standing 16 feet tall, was launched to 3,300 feet above the ground.


2015 Ball/ULA Rocket Launch

Learn how Ball interns build their own payloads and launch rockets