Air Force Junior ROTC teams ‘stellar’ at competition

  • Published
  • By Robb Lingley
  • 21st Space Wing Public Affairs

Teams of young students from across the U.S. competed in a national-level high school space challenge competition here April 18-20 as a way of inspiring students to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education careers.


StellarXplorers is an annual competition for high schools that inspires and attracts students from around the world. Teams can come from any high school, including home schools, Junior ROTC unit, Civil Air Patrol, school clubs, Boy and Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs or any other organized youth organization.


In the past, Air Force JROTC has sent teams to compete in the event, but this year their participation far surpassed the number of teams in prior years.


In 2015, five teams from Colorado participated in StellarXplorers in Colorado Springs. This year 180 teams from around the world competed, 92 of which were Air Force JROTC. Two of these Air Force JROTC teams, from John F. Kennedy High School (GU-051), Guam, and Buena Park High School (CA-946), California, made the final 10.


“Competitions such as StellarXplorers open the eyes of our young cadets and shows them what is possible,” said Col. Paul Lips, director of Air Force JROTC, which has its headquarters at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. 


“The upswing in attention this year can be attributed to the focus the Air Force has put on STEM curriculum and reaching kids at a younger age,” he said.


With the increase in the registration, came a change in the overall competition. 


"The competition this season was a lot tougher," said Stephen Gourley, StellarXplorers director. "With the great increase in registered teams, we've seen more creative solutions and better performances. The program office is proud to encourage the talent the teams have for STEM."


The StellarXplorers program provides a hands-on learning experience with a goal to develop and increase appreciation for the role of space in everyday lives.


Cadet Isaiah Alferos, an Air Force JROTC senior at Buena Park High School, California, said he loves the competition.


“I really like this competition,” he said. “We get to determine orbits, launch vehicle planning and satellite component selections.”

Alferos will attend California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, California, this fall to study aerospace engineering.


Air Force JROTC Cadet Jos Malig-on is a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Guam. This fall he will attend Rice University in Houston, Texas, to study computer science or engineering.


“StellarXplorers is a really intense competition that challenges your mind,” said Malig-on. “It tests you to think deeply about each scenario the instructors put you in.”


Teams competed in three events and the top 30 teams were chosen for the semi-final round.


“The first round was a practice round, while the second and third round presented an engineering problem,” said retired Maj. Bill Yucuis, StellarXplorers’ academics and training chief. “They had to choose the right one that meets the right specifications, but it also had to meet weight and budget requirements that provided the best results.”


The teams then participated to be one of 10 teams to compete in Colorado Springs at the national finals.


“In the finals the students did a complex phased calculation,” said Vicki Stoneking, Air Force STEM program manager. “They simulated launching two satellites that’s scenario-based, and they figured out payload costs, and had some real-world situations thrown at them where they had to switch satellites because one exploded.”


The students had to solve the equation presented to them in eight hours.


“In addition to figuring out the best space solution, they had to give a 15-minute debrief per team that’s scored,” said Yucuis. “Every student also had to take an individual quiz that helped determine the champion.”


 With their mission being one that develops citizens of character dedicated to serving their nation and community, JROTC teams can participate at StellarXplorers from any high school, with teams consisting of an adult team director, usually a teacher, and two to six students.


For more information on StellarXplorers, visit, email or call 703-247-5800 Ext. 4899.