U-M Alum Launches Rocket 55.6 miles above Earth’s Surface

Kip Daugirdas (‘08) is breaking records in amateur rocketry.

Written by Azul Cibils Blaquier

Kip Daugirdas is many things: aerospace engineer, ski-fanatic, Utah-resident. Coolest of all, he’s an amateur rocketeer. 

Daugirdas graduated from U-M Aerospace in 2008, but his interest in rockets dates way back to high school where he was part of a club that built rockets. Focused on his education, his rocketry interest didn’t grow into a passion until after he got his first job at General Electric Aviation, where he worked in the afterburners group on fighter jet engines. Which means that, basically, he worked on rockets.

It wasn’t love at first sight. At this point in his career, Daugirdas wasn’t sure where he wanted to apply his engineering skills. He transferred to GE Surgery, GE’s Healthcare arm, and moved to Utah. In this new role, he found the fast-paced innovation that he was looking for. It also didn’t hurt that there was an incredible mechanical engineering shop available to him where he could hone his machining skills and pursue his personal interests after hours. 

Enter rocket building. Daugirdas’ initial goal in 2013 was to go up 75,000 feet to get a photo of “a black sky and a blue Earth,” as he put it. By 2016 he more than surpassed this milestone, achieving an altitude of 150,000 feet.

“After that,” Daugirdas said, “it kind of just becomes addictive.”

Daugirdas was involved in MASA, the university’s student-run organization that builds rockets. At the time, the young club involved only 10 members and received little funding. Most of his knowledge of rocket building came in recent years by doing a lot of research and testing his rockets and rocket motors in the vast deserts of Utah and Nevada. His highest performing rockets fly no more than once a year and involve hundreds of hours of work. Maximizing the likelihood of success is critical to Daugirdas. Failures are okay as long as they are small and recoverable. For example, starting with a rocket motor the size of a 16oz can allow him to make mistakes without implying too much of a setback or too much wasted money. Because it is, after all, an expensive hobby, even if he has access to a shop.

Apart from the adrenaline rush, Daugirdas’ two favorite things about his hobby are the level of involvement and responsibility he has in these projects and the interdisciplinary nature of the feat. 

“You could go work for SpaceX or a big aerospace company and only be responsible for a small part of the project. No one really ever gets to be in charge of the whole program,” he said. “Plus, it’s enjoyable because you’re constantly learning. One day you’re working on rocket motors; the next you’re designing a circuit board for a data acquisition system.”

We checked in with the leadership board of MASA, U-M’s student organization that builds rockets. “Kip’s project is really impressive. We have around 100 students working on a variety of mechanical and operational functions to get our rockets off the ground. To do this as a hobby on his own is impressive. We are so glad to see Kip is reaching new heights! In our eyes, he is still an honored member of the MASA family.” comments Hunter Sagerer, Chief Engineer of MASA.

In October 2022, Daugirdas achieved his wildest dream and flew his rocket 293,488 ft, or 55.6 miles, high and reached over 4 times the speed of sound.

Daugirdas’ ventures have not only given him immense pleasure and fun, but they’ve also proven incredibly useful to his work. By getting his hands dirty in a vast array of areas of engineering, Daugirdas has now become a well-rounded engineer.

“Man, do you learn how to be a good engineer when you actually have to make your own parts,” he said. “The process of making something is often far more complicated than the design itself. It’s a huge investment in your time and you quickly learn ways to improve the design to facilitate its manufacture.”

When asked about how his education had shaped his career, Daugirdas said his experience at U-M was “humbling,” a time where he was surrounded by many brilliant students that impressed him every day.

“I feel like this article should be about them. I got a 3.0 in engineering. Sophomore year, my advisor told me that I should just transfer to another university if I was going to just get Bs. But I had started and I was not about to stop. The most important thing to get out of engineering school is to have an all encompassing knowledge and finding your passion”

When asked what he advised students to take advantage of in their education at U-M to prepare them for their careers, Daugirdas reminisced about his first day at work out of college.

“The first day I was given a drawing with tolerances and geometric dimensioning. Even though I had taken a CAD class that was offered, let me tell you, it did not prepare me for looking at a complex drawing of a part.” Daugirdas suggested that taking a manufacturing class is essential, and encouraged students to pursue internships and extracurricular activities not necessarily at an engineering company but at a machine shop.

“Half of your job will be designing parts so they’re manufacturable and inexpensive. Understanding how parts are made and inspected for quality will be incredibly useful.” 

Today, Daugirdas gives back to his community through a local club in Utah that launches once a month. He helps set up the launches by getting the FAA waivers and mentors others into getting their certifications in amateur rocketry. Daugirdas also makes a point to be available to all students and competitors alike.

Daugirdas, when asked about the possibility of turning his passion into a full-time job said, “I’m not actively trying to turn it into something more, but I will say that I’d like to fly higher because the view only gets better.”