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In September 2014, the Secretary of the US Air Force office asked the Air Force Association (AFA) if they could develop a national space competition, similar to AFA’s first national cyber education competition, CyberPatriot. Bill Yucuis, an aerospace engineer with 12 years of experience coordinating an Aerospace Magnet Program, was tasked as the chair of a committee tasked with creating the program from scratch. Air Force retired space experts Tim Brock and Stephen Gourley, in addition to Buck Buckwalter, the primary AFA person responsible for developing CyberPatriot, came together to found StellarXplorers. For seven years, the program was entirely volunteer-run. As the program has expanded, the volunteers who got it started have left a tremendous legacy and one-of-a-kind space education and competition program to challenge students across the world.

The StellarXplorers National Space Design Competition provides specific training in the use of system simulation software, Systems Tool Kit (STK), as well as an online textbook as a curriculum supplement and study resource for online “team” quizzes given during the competition. The actual competition is accomplished from the team’s home location. Teams are given a scenario describing the system’s mission and constraints and they provide a solution to a typical space design problem, such as orbit determination, satellite component selection, and launch vehicle planning.

Practice Rounds begin in October, and Qualification Rounds begin in November. Performances of teams during the Qualifying Rounds determine which teams advance to the Semi-Finals in February. The top 10 teams from the Semi-Finals receive an all-expense-paid trip to the National Finals.

The competition consists of three practice rounds, three qualifying rounds, a semifinal round, and a final round. The beginning of the season alternates between practice rounds and qualifying rounds. The top 64 teams after the first three qualifying rounds are invited to participate in Semifinals. The top 10 teams from Semifinals are asked to participate in Finals, and this is an all-expense-paid trip! The top 3 teams receive educational grants with varying values, the highest valued award going to the team in first place.