Queen’s Engineering students become first Canadian team to participate in NASA rocket launch competition

Kanatakon’ha Rocket came in second place behind University of California, Davis

Kanatakon’ha rocket was launched by proxy in California on May 15.
Supplied by Maranda Cherry

Seven Queen’s students will be participating in a NASA-sponsored rocket launch competition based in Kansasville, Wisconsin.

The Journal sat down with the team’s leader Maranda Cherry, Sci ’22,and logistics officer Cameron Bishop, Sci ’22,to discuss their journey to the NASA-sponsored First Nations Launch Competition.

The rest of the group is comprised of four Indigenous students and one Canadian student of Ugandan heritage: Jeffrey McCaw, Sci ‘22, Metis Nation of Ontario, Spencer Bundy, Sci ‘22 Mi’kmaq Nation, Tyler Cowie, Sci ‘23, Métis Nation of Ontario, Eric Birchall, Sci ‘22, Ulkatcho First Nation, and John Sekijoba, Sci ‘21, Buganda Kingdom.

Cherry, who has always been interested in rockets, said the competition was brought to her attention by Melanie Howard, director for Aboriginal Access to Engineering at Queen’s and the team’s faculty advisor in 2019.  

The team began preparing for the competition later that year, but their work came to a halt due to COVID-19.

From a lack of funding to being unable to physically launch the rocket itself, Cherry said there were many challenges they had to work through as the only Canadian team in an American competition.

“Being the first Canadian team to enter into the competition funded by NASA, we were not eligible for cash prizes and funding by NASA,” Cherry said.

As a solution, the team sought out grants from Aboriginal Access to Engineering, the Loveland Indigenous Engineering Fund, the Dean's Fund, and the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

The team said they named their rocket Kanatakon’ha, or Sparrow in Mohawk.

“One of the meanings behind it is basically the sparrows have to work together as a team to get a task done—which is what we did,” Bishop explained.

“It also matches the Iroquois word Kanata, which is the root word for Canada, meaning they come from the village,” he said.

Since Queen’s is situated on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee Territory, the team added that by naming their rocket Kanatakon’ha, it allowed them to honor traditional territory.

Due to pandemic travel restrictions, the Kanatakon’ha was launched by proxy in California on May 15 with the help of the University of California Davis team.

“We stayed on a four-hour long call to get the rocket assembled and set up for launch,” Cherry said. “And then finally seeing it launch was kind of like the culmination of all our hard work for the year.”

While the team came in second, Cherry said they also won an award for the visual aesthetic of their rocket. The team said the rocket design included flags of all the members’ nations, allowing them to pay homage to their heritage.

The team is far from finished. Cherry and Bishop told The Journal that they plan on building on their success in the 2021-22 year.


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